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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wisdom from Grandpa: Be a Thermostat NOT a Thermometer

My maternal grandpa died in 1982 when I was 12 years old. His name was Matthew Nichols, and his passing was the first significant loss of my life because I loved him so much and he had such an impact on me.

He never graduated high school and was a self-taught electrician by trade, yet there were several invaluable life lessons that I learned from him.

One such lesson occurred when I was in the first grade at Hawthorne Elementary School in Wilingboro, New Jersey. My teacher was Ms. Ringenwald, and one day during recess I got in big trouble because my two best friends decided it would be funny to go behind the school and pee on the building.

I went along and did just as they did. We thought it was the funniest thing, until one of the recess aides found us and saw what we were doing.

Not only was I banned from recess for two weeks, I was roundly and soundly spanked when I got home from school that day by my parents – strong adherents of corporal punishment.

To add to my embarrassment and shame, our grandparents were staying with us. I remember crying on my bed when my grandpa came into my room and unexpectedly turned the thermostat on my wall to 60ยบ, forcing frigid air to pour into the already autumnally cool room.

He sat down on my bed and waited for me to stop crying. Then he gave me a hug. We sat there in silence for a minute, when I told him that I was getting cold.

He then explained something to me that I have never forgotten. He said that a thermometer goes up and down based on the temperature of the room that it’s in – even as a first grader I understood that concept. However, he went on to say that the thermostat actually determines the temperature within a space – just like the chill we were both experiencing at that very moment in my room.

Grandpa then told me that even though he loved me, he was sad because I chose to be more of a “thermometer” at school that day by lowering to the bad decisions of others. He hoped that next time I would be more of a “thermostat” – setting the tone and expectation for conduct rather than merely following the bad behavior of another.

He then gave me another hug and turned off the air conditioning as he left my room. The blowing and the chill across my skin stopped immediately. His lesson made sense and it’s one I’ve tried to follow.

Since then, I’ve heard that analogy several times espoused by experts and PhDs alike, but the greatest delivery of that life lesson came from a man who had no more than an eighth-grade education.


  1. Tor

    Your best one yet. As someone who was raised by a hard working electrician who also strongly adhered to corporal punishment, I can relate. My Dad had a way with words too, and some of his sayings stick with me today. I expect to hear today, that my son was elected as the President of his Leadership class. My point is, keep on teaching what you were taught, and your children will benefit from this sage advice too.

  2. What an excellent visual lesson! I have both chills and also tears in my eyes. I'm not sure why it is quite so touching, other than because it is such a real, and needed message. So relevant. I have heard renditions of this train of thought before, but never broken down in quite the same easy to follow and understand way. This does come in great timing, as I will defintely use this in discussion with my boys (and my lil girl as she grows). Really - thank you for sharing this much needed message.

  3. @Bill, you're very kind and thanks for the encouraging words about keeping on regarding the kids!

  4. @Laura, based on all your past comments it seems that you're doing a great job raising your kiddos! I really appreciate your supportive feedback!

  5. Wow! Another one for the "Top Ten Torcon" list!
    I love lessons that are graphically illustrated - they are truly unforgettable.

    Thanks for sharing something so personal - such that we can all learn something so valuable.