A friend who has two young children asked me to write about some positive things my parents did when I was a child that have shaped who I am today. So many things contribute to why we are the way we are, from genetics to early friendships to traumatic experiences in our youth, but there’s no denying that our parents’ choices, behaviors, and attitudes have a significant impact on the people we become. Reflecting on our childhoods is valuable for all of us, and it holds particular value for me at this moment, as I prepare to become a parent.
I was a child in the 1980s, and the cultural norms of parenting were different then. I regularly stayed home by myself beginning as early as age eight, and maybe a bit earlier. In elementary school, I walked myself to and from the bus stop and to and from the homes of other kids in the neighborhood. Many parents are understandably hesitant to let their children do these things today, and I can’t say whether I will feel comfortable allowing my own children to be by themselves at a young age. But my parents trusted me, and I developed a sense of independence and security in the world.
I was an only child, and while I had friends, I also spent a good bit of time playing on my own. My parents didn’t fill my schedule with activities or feel a need to attend to me at all times. I learned to entertain myself and developed a love of reading and drawing. My parents were a little older than many of my peers’ parents, and few of their friends had children my age. Many of my cousins were significantly older than me. As a result, I was often surrounded by older kids and adults, which I think affected how I spoke and carried myself. My parents made a point of taking me everywhere they went from the time I was a baby, so I was comfortable visiting new places and meeting new people.
Both of my parents worked outside the home. My mom was only able to take about two weeks of maternity leave, and my grandmother cared for me for the first few months of my life. Sadly, she succumbed to breast cancer when I was about eight months old. A neighbor with two older kids then cared for me for about a year, until I began attending day care at the age of 18 months. I believe this early, regular exposure to other kids outside the presence of my parents helped me to develop social skills and confidence. Attending day care also made for an easy transition into kindergarten and elementary school.
Because both of my parents worked full-time outside the home, they shared domestic responsibilities pretty evenly. I recall both of them cooking, cleaning, and doing yard work. They expected me to help as well; I was assigned chores beginning sometime in early elementary school. My tasks usually consisted of things like sorting and folding laundry and emptying the dishwasher. Sometimes I hated doing chores, but that taught me that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. I also learned that the sooner I stopped procrastinating and got the chores done, the sooner I could move on to what I really wanted to be doing.
As a girl, I think it was important for me to hear my mom talk about work. I have a number of friends now who stay at home with their kids, and I certainly understand their reasons for doing so. That was never really an option for my family financially, and I don’t think my mom would have thrived as a stay-at-home-mom even if she’d had that choice. My mom took her job seriously, worked hard, and took ownership of the work she did. She only had a high-school diploma, but she worked her way up to a management position in a male-dominated industry. She traveled to customer sites and conferences, which seemed important and even a little glamorous to me. She didn’t always like her job, and she voiced her frustrations freely at the family dinner table, but hearing her talk about work allowed me to see her as a whole person rather than just as my mom. I took several lessons from this: (1) the world did not revolve around me; (2) women are just as capable as men; (3) it is perfectly normal and acceptable for women to have male colleagues and friends; and (4) though work is not always fun, it can be a source of personal satisfaction.
Despite all of this, my parents always wanted me to do better than they had done. They expected me to go to college. They didn’t pressure me to get good grades, and they didn’t reward me for them either. Throughout my childhood, I understood that I needed to work hard and do well in school so that I could go to college and build a good career. My parents wanted me to have opportunities that they had not enjoyed, like extra-curricular activities and travel. My mom has lived in the same Pennsylvania county her entire life and has only traveled outside the country one time: when I was in high school, and she insisted that we all go to Europe with my school’s gifted program. That trip required sacrifices, but it sparked in me a love of travel and adventure that still burns brightly, and probably always will.
My parents also tried to teach me to be kind and considerate of others. Two examples stand out in my memory. When I fought with my best friend, they always made me smooth things over. It didn’t matter what had caused me to be angry or upset with my friend. They made it clear that I needed to get over it, apologize if necessary, and restore the relationship. That attitude taught me that friendships require give and take and are too important to let pride destroy them.
They also encouraged me to give to people who were less fortunate than me. One Thanksgiving or Christmas when I was about five years old, my dad took me with him to the Salvation Army to donate a ham for a holiday dinner. He explained to me that some people don’t have the things that we have, and I wanted to help them. I took out my markers and made a sign that said “Food For You” and proudly handed it to a volunteer when we delivered the ham. It may seem like a small gesture, but the fact that I still remember this experience shows how it shaped me. I learned that we have a responsibility to help others and that giving feels good. I hope I can instill the same importance of community and service in my own kids.
What positive things did your parents do to help you become the person you are today? How did they instill their values in you? Please share your own experiences in the comments.
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