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Teach your children well about work, too

(ran NP, CT, CI)

For a nation up to our necks in work, we teach our kids precious little about our jobs.

A continuing 10-year University of Chicago study of 250 young adults shows many teens don't understand the career paths open to them or the steps needed to travel the path of their choice.

"Many middle-class parents think their children will get this knowledge from the school or college counselor," says Barbara Schneider, a University of Chicago sociology professor who has written a book about the study. In reality, parents need to work harder to convey what they know about the world of work, she says.

A good way to fill kids' knowledge gap is through an age-old art: Telling stories about your work. Relating workaday dramas and the values that guide you on the job can teach kids a lot about what it takes to succeed.

My first clue that my own family mirrors this national problem was when I overheard my son, then nine years old, tell a friend: "Mommy types for a living." To deepen his understanding of my work, I've since tried to engage him with stories about the adventures that drew me to it, such as how I once joined Muhammad Ali for a training run, and how I almost got arrested covering a farm-trade story in Colombia. Intrigued, my son, now 13, has begun asking how he can find and prepare for an equally interesting job for himself.

Professional writers report rising interest in storytelling among middle-aged parents who want their children to understand their lives. Membership in the Association of Personal Historians, a group for writers who record people's stories, has risen 116 percent in the past two years to nearly 400, says Lettice Stuart, president. She believes the Sept. 11 tragedy sparked the trend, part of a broader quest for meaning.

There are tricks to telling the kind of stories kids want to hear. Many parents learn to their surprise that it's not their successes their kids want to hear; it's their struggles.

As a former secretary who rose to become president of a big dress-manufacturing company, Kathy Kulik, Glen Ridge, N.J., had a good rags-to-riches story to tell. But when she tried to convey hard-won lessons _ how to gain a career, how to ask for a raise, how to make your ambitions come true _ to her teenage son, her words fell on deaf ears. He told her, "Yeah, yeah, enough of this. I just don't want to hear how wonderful you are," she says. "I realized all those things I thought were great, that I'd achieved, didn't matter" as much as hearing about how she faced shortcomings.

So she shifted gears and told him how she learned to relate better to her employees. When a subordinate quit, saying she lacked respect, Ms. Kulik realized the combative communication style she'd grown up with wasn't the best tactic, she told her son. Not only did he listen intently, but he began confessing some of his mistakes and talking about what he'd learned. Such rich exchanges drew them closer, she says.

"Kids need to see that Mom and Dad aren't perfect," says Molly Catron, an Afton, Tenn., storyteller. "If you constantly clean up stories and everybody is victorious, how does that help when the kid hits a wall and can't figure out what to do?"

But how can you make an abstract modern job _ say, writing strategic plans, engineering microchips or trading bonds _ riveting to a technology-jaded teen? Master storyteller Odds Bodkin of Bradford, N.H., cites several ingredients of a good story, starting with a cast of characters. "Who, firstly, is the bad guy, or the bad girl? And why?" he says. "Secondly, who are your allies?"

One former systems analyst in Coopersburg, Pa., found a ready-made "bad guy" in her boss _ a man her school-age children have dubbed "Cheese Ball." Spinning his knack for dodging accountability into an entertaining tale, the mother told how he ordered everybody to work all weekend on a crash project, blaming a co-worker for the supposed emergency. Come Monday, he enraged his staff by declaring all the extra work unnecessary, then blamed them for misunderstanding him. "So what should he do next time to be a better boss?" she asked her children.

They got the point. "Not pass the buck and cover his butt," her daughter replied.

For younger children, Bodkin advises simplifying your job into concrete terms and reducing work events to plotlines. "Find three or four colorful sentences describing exactly what it is that you do," he advises. If you're a software engineer in telecommunications, "spin a story around the day the telephones didn't work." How about a bank vice president? "Tell a story about the day no one had any money in their pockets."

Include lots of detail about people and the emotions you felt at the time, suggests Robert E. Wood, a Centralia, Wash., author and biographer. These storytelling skills can serve you well in discussing nonwork challenges too. If your child asks, "Mom, did you ever do drugs?" and you did, don't skirt the question, Mr. Wood advises. Dive right in.

But rather than framing your answer as if you were on trial, make it a story, with decisions good and bad. You might, for example, call your drug use a "bad detour" in an otherwise straight life, and explain why it was bad, Wood suggests. Then, tell how you got back on track and invite your child to talk with you if he or she ever finds herself on the same path.

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