I’ve been learning from Rick Sapio for over a decade. I know no one more passionate about family, rituals, and entrepreneurship. Today, Rick shares his story with Kidorable Parenting.
Jonathan: Welcome to Kidorable Parenting’s interview with Rick Sapio—entrepreneur, founder of Business Finishing School and creator of the Family Placemat. I’m Jonathan Domsky, blogger, Parenting Coach, and co-founder of Kidorable. I’ve been learning how to be a better parent with Rick for three years and I’m always inspired by his example. Let’s get started. Rick, tell me a little bit about who you are, what you do and what you’re passionate about.
Rick: All right, Jonathan. Thanks for having me. I’m really passionate about being a dad. I am an older dad. I didn’t have my first child till age 45, and now I’m 54 and my children are 3, 5, 7 and 9, and it’s been a fun ride. I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. And you asked a wide open question at the beginning so I think it makes me want to go all the way back to the beginning for me which really informs how I parent today.
I want to share with the audience that I’m the seventh of 10 babies that my mother had. And, really sad story, when I was in my mother’s womb, the day she found out that she was pregnant with me she found out that my three-old brother had incurable cancer and he was given six weeks to live. And so my mother was back and forth to the hospital in Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey at the time, this is 1963. And in those days when a mom had a caesarean section they stayed in the hospital for two to three weeks. So my brother Frankie, and I want you to imagine a bouncy three-year old – I have a three-year old now, this is incredible, all the life they have – and imagine what my mother must’ve been going through during the pregnancy with me.
So, when I was 11 days old, Frankie died in the next hospital bed at Hackensack Hospital in 1963, and it was a horrific time for my mother. She had very, very serious mental issues and depression her whole life after that point. And then it gets worse, when I was 11, my dad came home, you can imagine my mother didn’t work, my dad came home and announced to the family that he had incurable cancer and he was given six weeks to live. And, fortunately, he ended up living two and a half years, and I would say that those two and a half years were the most productive of my life because he told me, “Look, you’re smart, you got a good head on your shoulders, you’re going to have to support the family.” And it was then that I became an entrepreneur, and I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since.
The point I want to get to with your listeners, Jonathan, is that even though we came from these, what you would describe as horrific circumstances, after my dad died we had no money because he had declared bankruptcy twice because of medical expenses. What he had instilled in us was independence and entrepreneurship and the ability to get things done, the ability to make money, and so I can honestly say, now 41 years later, that nobody in my family is divorced, all of us are married, there’s over 250 years of marriage, and yet look where we came from.
And I know people that came from incredibly positive childhoods and yet, as adults, their lives are chaos. And so what I’d like to teach your listeners is the fundamentals that I learned as a kid that I use now to make sure that my children will be successful adults like me and my siblings are.
Jonathan: What are some of those values that you learned growing up from both your parents and from your experience that you try to pass onto your kids?
Rick: Yeah, there’s a lot of values, and I’m going to try to, in the interest of time, keep it to the basics. But the number one thing that I learned as a kid is something that I now call values-based decision-making, and in order to have values-based decision-making your family, and you personally, need to have a clear set of values from which all decisions are made. And when I was a child, my mother was very clear about the values in our family, and those values were God first, hard work, you reap what you sow, cleanliness is next to godliness, you never lie, you show up on time, things like that.
But it was all talked about at family dinner, so despite the chaos that I had as a kid growing up in New York City and all of those things that could’ve persuaded me to not be a good boy, I guess, what these things were talked about was at the dinner table. My family was incredibly consistent with family dinners, and I could tell you, as an entrepreneur now, I’ve had my company for 24 years, I’m really, really busy but I never violate something that my mother taught us which is family dinners are sacred. And so I have dinners with my family six nights a week. We also, just like my parents taught me, is we keep Sundays sacred. We do absolutely positively nothing on Sundays, and that’s been going on for the last six years.
And if my children are in a sport that happens on a Sunday we don’t do it. If they get invited to a birthday party, we don’t do it. So what we do do on Sundays, which is something that my family did, is we get up early, we eat breakfast together, we go to church, and then we come back and we play and we hang out and we have a family meeting. And so those backbone fundamental things that we do are what my family did way back when. And I got to admit, not as organized. It’s way more organized now because my wife and I are both very ritualistic.
But the thing that – just to take it forward 41 years – I’ve noticed is that my perception of watching my friends and other families that I’m familiar with, is they let everything get in the way of family. And what my parents taught me, what I taught my children is nothing gets in the way of family, and so they know it’s important.
Jonathan: You talked about conversations around the dinner table. What’s the importance of talking about family values? How is that different from simply teaching by example?
Rick: Well, there’s a lot in that question underneath the question, but I think, first and foremost, I’m in the middle of a book right now called Reclaiming Conversations. And the fact that, over the last 10 years, conversations, in general, have almost vanished from society. People look down, they handle it on text or Facebook or posts online. And so conversations, in general, is an art and a skill that I want to teach to my children. So the number one reason why we have dinner every night for an hour, and why we asks questions and bring interesting articles to teach the kids, is so that they can develop the skill of conversing and thinking for themselves and responding to questions and talking.
But the second part of your question is, “Why talk about values and not just show them by example?” I think both are important. One of the things I do at the dinner table is we have a family placemat that my wife and I created 10 years ago, and it sits in front of the dinner table – and it’s heavily laminated, it sits in front of each one of my kids, it’s got our family values, my wife’s and my wedding vows, our family-meeting questions, our family crest, Ben Franklin’s 13 virtues, all kinds of things. There’s actually 35 parts of information on the family placemat. And my oldest has it memorized. He could tell you anything on the placemat with his eyes closed.
So I just think having the placemat and talking about values, which are listed on the placemats, and then living them is great because, as my son will tell me often, my seven-year old, he’ll say, “Daddy, that’s against our values.” So I think talking about them is great.
Jonathan: Nice. Rick, what’s something that you wish you had more courage or imagination to do when you were younger?
Rick: Something that I wish I had more courage or imagination to do when I was younger. It’s funny, I didn’t have a lot of options as a child, and when I got a little bit older I had some opportunities to study abroad in both high school and college, and I did not do that. And as a regret, just to take the question further, 10 years ago someone handed me a book, when Melissa was pregnant with our first son, called The Bilingual Advantage. And I always wanted to be fluent in Italian, I always wanted to live in Italy, but this book really hit home for me, something that people very rarely talk about and that is that when a child is bilingual from day one, the day they’re born, if they hear two languages, according to 40 years of research out of Stanford University, these babies have 15-point higher IQs.
And the interesting thing is they have to hear that second language from birth. If the parents wait more than six months, they actually start to see a reverse, and it’s based on the fact that the child can develop two language pods inside their brain if they hear the two languages from birth. And if they wait till after six months old then the languages are more on top of each other. You can still be fluent in two languages but it’s better to start early. So long story short, I asked my wife when she was pregnant, I said, “Look at this book, look at these stats. Do you mind if I only talk to the kids in Italian?” And she said, “That’s a little odd.” But she didn’t think I would do it. So I’m here to tell you, almost 10 years later that I’ve never talked to my children in English, and they’re all fluent in Italian, which is great.
Now when we’re at dinner, I’ll address the group in English, but when I’m talking to them one on one it’s always in Italian which is kind of funny because my wife has been hearing the language now and still asks my three-year old to interpret for her, which is great.
Jonathan: Nice. Rick, you just don’t talk about your values and you just don’t live them, you have more rituals and structure in your family life that reinforce your values than anyone I know. What are some of your everyday family rituals? And how do you believe that they add to your quality of life?
Rick: Well, I want to say that, before I answer the question, it’s important when you have rituals that they are indeed rituals. They become the backbone of your life. And so one of the things that we think strengthens our family is that my wife and I tell the children often that, “Our relationship is primary, we’re number one, and you are our children, you’re number two.” And what does that mean? It means we travel often a lot without the children. My wife and I, for the last 15 years since we met, we go on weekly date night on Monday nights and we haven’t missed. And, in fact, it’s so ritualized that we had a child on a Sunday morning, and Monday came and my wife said, “We got to go on date night,” so we brought our newborn.
So I think that culture has taught us that it’s okay to blur the lines on everything and we don’t do that. So family meetings, there’s a great book called The Secret to Happy Families which talks about a family-meeting structure which we follow with family meetings on Sundays. We also, on Wednesday mornings, I’ll take one child out to breakfast. They think it’s important to have some one-on-one time. My children are relatively young. We have this exercise called The Talking Stick, where we pass a talking stick around the table while we’re eating as a ritual so that only the person with the talking stick can talk, and that gives everybody an opportunity to talk while the other people are listening.
What else are some other things we do? There’s so many, Jonathan, I don’t even know where to start or stop. We read to our children every night for at least an hour which is unique. We also have game night on Friday nights where we play table games together, so those are a few things that come to mind.
Jonathan: Sure. You have many rituals that make your family life more meaningful and more joyous. Is g something about your current family life that you wish was more fun, easy, meaningful or joyous?
Rick: You know, it’s a very easy question but I’m almost embarrassed to say the answer. So, I’ve got three boys and a girl, and my oldest two are the same size physically even though they’re two years apart. And I have not figured out how to have them get along, so I would say that 60% of the time they get along just fine, 20% of the time they’re tolerating each other, and the other 20% they want to rip each other’s head off. And we’ve tried all kinds of things to fix that, so that is the least joyous part about my family experience, and that is to get my two boys to get along.
Jonathan: What’s something that you treasure from your own childhood that you’ve tried to recreate with your own children?
Rick: I’m going to give you an answer that you don’t expect and I really want to push this message through to people because I do have 44 nieces and nephews, and it’s something that I think parents have forgotten. This thing that I treasure most from my childhood is the fact that my parents knew that the gift of independence and self-sufficiency was the greatest that they can give us. And I feel like, in today’s society, we are sucking that from kids. We’re handing them gadgets. We’re driving them all over God’s creation for sports that won’t matter 20 years from now. We’re almost a slave to our children, and I see it everywhere so I can make that statement. Everywhere.
And I think the greatest gift that I received was the ability to earn my own money, the ability to save money, the ability to make independent decisions on how I was going to spend my entrepreneurial time. I had a lot of free time to learn, how to take engines apart and put them back together and become a mechanic to make money. And so when I think about my children, we’re constantly thinking about, “What do we want the end result to be?” And the end result to be is we want an 18-year old that has those qualities – leadership, independence, entrepreneurship, the ability to make money.
And if we work back to age 9 and 10, what should we be doing now? So we took a really bold step and we decided what’s more important than video games, and more important than electronics, we bought a rental house down the street from our home and Luke is in charge of that house, he’s in charge of cutting the grass and cleaning the windows and meeting the tenants and collecting the rents, and all of those things. So it’s very important to him now that he understands business. And people might say, “Isn’t that kind of young?” And I’m like, “He’s excited about it. I’d rather him be excited about managing a rental property.” And we’ve instilled in him, “Look, this isn’t your property. You can earn management fees but you’re not going to get any equity. You got to earn that over time.”
And so I look around at my siblings, my nieces and nephews and other parents, and it seems like people want to put a pillow under their child so they don’t fall down. And the reality is that’s not real life, and so we want to teach our kids real life. And the people listening are probably saying to themselves, “Wow, that makes a lot of sense. But aren’t I doing that? Why am I not doing that?” And the answer is, I don’t know.
Jonathan: You talked about well-meaning parents who are slaves to their children. They drive them all over town to all these activities that just makes everybody tired and cranky and takes time away from the family. What are some activities that you enroll your children in? And how do you believe those activities are going to create that 18-year old, that independent 18-year old that you’re working on?
Rick: Great question. So, first of all, we don’t do any activities at all, so far none that have a calendar associated with them. Meaning you have to show up for football practice or soccer on this day, whatever. Everything we do is, for the most part, in the house, and I’ll explain. So we have a music teacher that comes to our house and teaches violin and piano. We have a language teacher that comes to our house two days a week to teach the kids at home. We have a… I’m forgetting another one. There’s another that teaches, oh, a Chinese teacher that comes over and teaches in the home. We also have a chess teacher that comes over, and all four of them play chess.
And the reason we do it is we want to do things on our terms not on society’s terms, that’s number one. Number two, I grew up in a tough neighborhood, and I got a lot of benefit from knowing martial arts and knowing how to protect myself. So there’s a martial arts studio near our house, they have a bunch of options to choose from in terms of when we can bring the child there. So our oldest is a brown belt now in karate and also takes jujitsu. But, again, on our terms. And so we stayed away from things that require us to be gone during family dinner, be gone during important events, and we do a lot of things at our home.
Jonathan: So it’s not the activities themselves that you fault, it’s when they take away from family togetherness that’s the real problem.
Rick: Yeah, and I’ll just take it a little further, Jonathan. I’ve got two close friends who are in the middle of a divorce right now, two separate couples, because of travel sports. Yeah, you got these kids, they’re really passionate about volleyball or hockey, and dad has got to take the kids for a weekend to Seattle and the next weekend is in New York and the next weekend to Miami. And that is absolutely the opposite of one of our values which is mom and dad are first, and the relationship between mom and dad is first.
And I actually mentioned this theory to one of my employees who’s in a horrific marriage, and she says, “How could you take sports away from a child?” And I go, “Let me ask you a question. Of your three kids, how many are playing sports right now?” “None.” “Well, why not?” “Well, they played it as a kid.” I said, “Did anything positive happen from that experience?” And she looked at me cross-eyed, “I don’t know.” So I’m thinking, “Well, if instead of taking them to these sports that didn’t help your marriage, wouldn’t it have been better to teach them entrepreneurship, independence and values and all that?” And I didn’t get a good answer to that question either. But maybe your audience will listen to it differently than she did.
Jonathan: That’s well-said. Rick, what’s the best part about being a parent?
Rick: The best part about being a parent is watching my wife light up as a mom. Neither one of us got any training on this, it’s the hardest job in the world, and I’ve watched my wife become an incredible mom the last almost 10 years.
Jonathan: Tell me about your current project or something else you think I should know about your work?
Rick: I think, for the listeners, I spend a lot of time, 54 years, thinking about how to make really simple… I don’t know a better way to say it, but just really simple rituals and tools that can be put on the ground immediately. And it’s mainly for families and for businesses, and I call it Business Finishing School, and we’ve got 48 modules of information. And the people that have gone through this program since 2010 have had a profound result in their lives. Their marriages have improved, their businesses have improved, their incomes improved mainly because of the three operating principles which I want to talk about right now.
And those three operating principles that we think anybody can utilize are simplicity, probability and leverage. And the first word is I approach my business and personal life from a perspective of radical simplicity. And what does that mean? It means I don’t have a smartphone. It means we only have one television in the house, and this is in the backroom. It means that we only have one house, and my wife has a car, I have a car. We don’t have all the chaos and electronics and things infiltrating our lives. And I approach business the same way. How can I live and work as simple as possible? So always had a really short commute. Never had toxic people around me. Avoid lawsuits and chaos that most businesses have.
The second word is probability. And I used an example of it before. Like in every decision that you make, how can you increase the probability that you’re hitting your objectives in business or that you’re making sure that your child at 18 is the child you want? I mentioned before entrepreneurial, independent, a leader, able to make their own money. And so we make decisions that are consistent with that. We make what we call high-probability decisions.
And the last word is leverage. And leverage, to me, as an operating principle in a family is having a lot of consistency, having rhythms, working through other people. And one really quick example of that is our kids know our schedule for the week. We talk about it at the family meeting. They know, for example, that five years from now, on Monday night, mom and dad will have date night. They know their mom and dad have always had date night on Monday night, and so it adds leverage because the neighborhood knows, the babysitter knows, the kids know, my employees know, the restaurant knows because we typically go to the same place. And those rituals create leverage, meaning other people are doing stuff for you. And now the kids get excited when we go out to dinner because they know mom and dad are strong.
Jonathan: Very interesting. Where could they find out more?
Rick: Well, I would say BusinessFinishingSchool.com, we’re doing a boot camp in February 23, 2018. And, in fact, Jim Shields from Family Board Meetings is going to speak. And Family Board Meetings has been a huge, huge influence in my life. They advocate that most business people have no problem devoting four hours every quarter to a board meeting. Why not devote four hours every quarter with zero electronics to each child? Just once a quarter, four hours alone looking at your child in the eye and talking to them.
And so he’ll be there, and he alone is worth the price of admission. It’s not an expensive ticket. So if you go to BusinessFinishingSchool.com and click on boot camp, all the information is there. And if you put in the promo code FRIEND you can get a nice discount on the ticket price. So our focus is on making business people more successful by having more serenity at home, and so it works both ways.
Jonathan: Excellent. Well, Rick, this has been such a treat. I’m grateful for your time, your wisdom, and the example that you share with me and our listeners.
To find out more about what Rick has to offer, check out https://familyplacemat.com/ and https://businessfinishingschool.com/bootcamp-February-2018/
In two weeks I’ll give a free Kidorable Umbrella to whoever leaves my favorite comment and shares this interview on the social media platform of their choice.