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I’ll Need A Stamp And An Antelope

We were at my in-laws’ home one evening when my older daughter, then around 4 years old, made a very polite request.

“I want to write a letter to Uncle Craig,” she announced. “May I have an antelope, please?”

I recalled this incident a few weeks ago during a business trip to Brazil. I was having dinner with two colleagues at General Prime Burger, an American-themed (and, oddly, also British-themed) casual restaurant in a very upscale mall in Sao Paulo. It is the kind of place where one of this week’s advertised promotions is the Festival of Milk Shakes and where, during our visit, a boisterous birthday party for a grade-school boy and, seemingly, his entire neighborhood was not going to disturb anyone.

Two finely turned-out young mothers sat at a nearby table with three little girls, who seemed to be around 3, 5 and 7 years old. Actually, the mothers sat at the table; the girls mostly roamed the restaurant. They looked in on the boy’s birthday party, checked out the galley where dishes got their finishing touches, visited the host stand and wandered to a corner where a television played cartoons. Their mothers watched from a distance but never moved.

In America we might find this parenting style lax, rude or even risky, especially given Sao Paulo’s reputation as a dangerous city. But the mothers were not doing anything wrong. The mall itself, like most such places in Brazil, has tight security, and the children were never going to get past the host stand at the restaurant’s only access point. Inside that burger joint, those three little girls enjoyed more freedom, security and autonomy than most of the other 25 million people in Sao Paulo at that moment.

I met the girls when I got up to use the restroom. General Prime Burger has one of those modern arrangements where the sinks are shared by both genders in a common area outside the washrooms. While I waited for the men’s room to be free, the oldest girl took the two younger ones into the ladies’ room. When she came out, she reminded the littlest one to wash her hands.

The 3-year-old could not reach the sink, so the 7-year-old lifted her. That is when I got involved, using my limited Portuguese to ask if I could help. I turned on the water for them as I did so.

It turns out that a 7-year-old girl in Brazil is pretty much like the women I have lived with at home for the past few decades: She is perfectly comfortable issuing orders to me.

“Sabonete” (sab-on-ETCH), she commanded. I put some soap on my hands and transferred it to her. She scrubbed the little one’s hands.

“Papel,” she next directed. I took out a paper towel and gave it to her. She dried off her companion’s hands and led her out to the restaurant without another word. As far as she knew, handing out soap and paper towels was my primary occupation. (I am certain that if her mother had been within earshot, she would have reminded the older girl to say “obrigada,” the feminine form of thank you, to me. I have always found Brazilians to be very well-mannered.)

As the little girls walked away, I realized that after 17 years of making more-or-less annual trips to Sao Paulo, I now speak Portuguese at roughly the level of a Brazilian 3-year-old. Heaven knows how many times I have inadvertently asked for an antelope or its equivalent without realizing my error because someone had the grace to decipher what I meant.

Of course, most parents see it as our job to correct our children when they make such errors. We don’t want our kids to grow up believing that the U.S. Postal Service delivers antelopes, or that strangers wait outside restrooms to hand out soap and paper towels. A skillful parent will issue the correction (“Write the letter now, and we’ll look for an envelope when we get home”) in a way that does not undermine the child’s self-confidence and initiative, or the desire to explore a burger joint with friends and siblings.

This approach, which I learned from my experiences with my two daughters, has now filtered into my work life as a company president and as a financial adviser. At work, I see my role as creating a safe space in which my employees can do their best work and grow professionally, by developing procedures to ensure that their mistakes - and mistakes are inevitable - are small, are caught, and are opportunities to learn.

Similarly, in working with clients who have businesses or other assets to pass to younger generations, I try to help develop structures that promote security, growth and family harmony. I don’t advise clients to try to prevent their heirs from making any mistakes; I just want to keep the mistakes manageable so they can help the young generation grow up.

It’s amazing how much we learn from our kids while teaching them the difference between antelopes and envelopes. Happy Father’s Day.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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