When I was about five years old, my mother took me to her friend’s house to play with her friend’s daughter, who was a few months younger than me. After we dug endless holes in the driveway, one of us had the brilliant idea to make mud pies.
We did, and had a ball. Then we decided to “paint” the side of the house (white, of course) with the mud. We had a wonderful time putting muddy hand prints all over the paint and then smearing it up as far as we could reach.
When my friend’s mother saw what we had done, she scolded us and then made us take a bath. When she called my mother, she told her to dress me “appropriately” for the next day, as both her daughter and I were going to spend the day cleaning up our mess. We did, and we never did anymore house painting again. As young as we were, we learned that there were consequences for our actions.
At home, if I didn’t pick up my toys and clothes before bed time, I knew I would spend time in the corner (which I hated). When I lost things during the day, especially articles of clothing, Mom would send me right back out to where I had been playing to find them and bring them home. Sometimes I found them, and sometimes I had forgotten where I left them.
What I didn’t realize back then was that money was very tight, and even with both Mom and Dad working, often ends didn’t meet. So when I lost something, like a sweater, it was a big deal, because there was not a lot of extra money to buy another one.
At some point, this habit of mine got so out of hand that Mom warned me that if I lost one more thing, she would bag up all my clothes and shoes and take them to the rag man. And there I would be, naked forever.
Of course, being five, I didn’t take her seriously. I came home the next day without my jacket, and Mom asked me where it was. I shrugged and told her I didn’t know. She said, “Ok, that’s it.”
She made me take off all my remaining clothing, and cleaned out my closet and bureau of all my clothes. By that time, I was in tears. I said, “How’m I gonna go to school this fall with no clothes?”
Mom said, “Well, I guess you’re just not going to be able to go to school.” I burst into fresh tears because I was really looking forward to first grade. I sobbed, “What am I gonna do now?”
“I guess you’d better go to bed,” Mom said, and carried out all my clothes.
Well—by the time I woke up, all my clothes were back in my bureau and closet. Even my lost jacket had been found. Mom and I never spoke of this again, but I never lost anything after that.
Whenever I’ve told this story to anyone, there have always been two reactions. One is “How terrible! How could your mother do that to you?” The other is “So, did you learn anything from that?”
I certainly did. I was old enough to know that Mom and Dad worked hard for everything we had. There was very little left over for new clothes, new shoes, and so on. At a very early age I was quite familiar with the phrase “we can’t afford that.” I never argued or fussed about it because I knew even then that “we can’t afford it” was the end of the story, period.
When I was old enough to do chores, I made my own money; 15 cents for washing the dishes, 10 cents for sweeping the floor, and so on. Plus my friend Mike and I used to scour the neighborhood for empty pop bottles to turn into cash at the local candy store. Also I was expected to make my bed each morning, feed the cat, keep my room clean, vacuum the house every Wednesday afternoon and to change out of my school clothes when I got home, hang them up and put on my “play clothes” to go out and play.
Mom and Dad taught me “life skills” at home. Mom taught me how to make a bed properly, how to lemon wax the furniture, how to iron, how to wash a wool sweater, mend a tear and sew on a button. She also taught me how to keep a checkbook, how to make change (for my first job at one of the local gift shops), and how to make simple meals.
Dad taught me how to change a tire, build a campfire and put it out successfully, how to use a jack knife without cutting myself, how to ski, how to ride a bike, how to drive, and how to skate. Both of my parents made sure that I was equipped to live in the world on my own, and manage my own life.
As I got older, I realized how much those experiences taught me. My childhood and growing up years were all about making me ready to live on my own, and how to manage my life. Of course I made many mistakes along the way, but at least I didn’t make the same mistake twice. I knew that, if I got in a bind, I could depend on my parents, but fortunately, those instances were few and far between.
Parenting is a tough old job, and I salute all parents who have and who are raising children. Not only are they raising children, but they are in the process of making responsible adults. Sure, babies and toddlers are cute and adorable, but the hard work is all the teaching and reinforcing, all the times parents have to say ‘no’ to their kids even when it breaks their own hearts to do so, and the endless, largely thankless journey of growing a baby into a functioning, independent person.
Life lessons learned early can make all the difference. Parents everywhere, you have my respect and admiration.