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Paul Burri: Lessons to Be Unlearned

Looking back, parents weren't always right in the "tricks" they taught us

You know what they say about hindsight — it’s 20/20. Looking back over my growing up years, I realize that not all of the lessons that I learned from my parents were good ones.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

In those years in the 1930s and 1940s growing up in New York City, it was common practice in most movie theaters that children younger than age 10 got in for free. I remember when I was about 11 years old being coached beforehand by my parents, “When they ask you how old you are, say that you’re 9 and a half.” Even then I knew that I was lying, but if my parents told me to do it, it must be acceptable — or at least it was “what everyone else does.” Because it was common practice, it must be OK.

Later, the price for children ages 10 to 13 was less than for adults. When I was 14 and old enough to buy my own movie ticket for the Saturday double feature plus six cartoons and a newsreel, I learned the neat trick of spreading my legs when I got up to the ticket window so I would appear smaller and younger. Lesson learned.

On the other hand, I also was taught that I must never lie to my parents. That was completely unacceptable. I really didn’t see that I was getting mixed messages. It was clear that there were two standards of honesty — one with your parents, relatives (and not always with them) and close friends, and another standard for the rest of the world. It was only when I became an adult that I understood that the phrase flexible standards is an oxymoron, like military intelligence, clean dirt and jumbo shrimp.

When, in my teen years, I started to work in a bicycle store and saw how the owner cheated his customers in numerous ways, I was not repelled or disgusted. On the contrary, I admired how smoothly he could get away with all his dishonest tricks. I even remember trying to think up a few of my own. I’m sure that was because I had learned about those flexible standards. I’m also sure that had I tried to cheat that same bicycle store owner in some way, the consequences would have been serious and immediate. It was OK for him to cheat other people, but no one had better try to cheat him.

It also is interesting to me to realize that if anyone had asked me whether I was an honest person, I would have said yes with no hesitation at all.

Is this meant to be a recrimination of my parents? Not at all. They, too, were trapped in a double-standard system that, probably, their parents had taught them. Nor is this meant to be an apology. Both of my parents are long gone, and I have no way to question them or get them to offer their defense. Therefore, these comments are strictly from my point of view.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business but he is a small business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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