In many ways it is a values question. What do we owe our parents? It was a question I posed to several friends and the answers come from their own words. Parenting is the one job that has no prerequisite and requires no experience. Yet, parents have an enduring effect on our entire lives.
My friend Wayne was born and adopted in 1942. He grew up in a relatively poor household. His father had gone to work at age 12 and he owes him a great deal for what his father taught him indirectly about life and how to live it.
In middle public school, Wayne would occasionally work with him in a slaughterhouse, and when some men were using the F-word, Dad gave them a stern look and said "Not in front of the boy." He would never forget it, and has since seldom ever used that word.
When Wayne was offered an after-school job just before high school, his father said, "No, your job is to participate in school." That made a tremendous difference in Wayne's teenage years and all that followed. I also had freedom to come and go with few restrictions, which taught me so much about risks, rewards and how to behave.
Mary Ellen says she learned not to complain or use challenges as excuses.
Mary Ellen told me that the examples her parents set remain strongly with her. Her older sister was born with brain damage and in the 1950s and 1960s there were few choices for Mary Ellen and her parents.
Mary Ellen says she owes her parents the perspective of "Don't let things stand in your way." Her father was injured during the Second World War in Italy and lost one of his legs below the knee, but his amputation was never an excuse and he continued to do what he loved. Her sister's condition was accepted and they pushed for her to have all the possibilities that in those days were difficult to attain. Mary Ellen says she learned not to complain or use challenges as excuses.
Secondly Mary Ellen owed to her parents the belief that nature is magnificent and it's important that time is spent outside. Additionally (and so important in Canada), the lesson that winter is for enjoying life outside and not simply a season to endure.
Richard said that he felt very lucky to have the parents he had. They practiced a set of values that have stood the test of time, allowing him to learn from them. His mother is 99, and he's still learning from her. He owes it to them to accept these values and live them as his parents did. At times in his life, he noticed that he was asking himself what Mom or Dad would do. The answers were always there.
Richard was allowed to experiment and try out how to do things.
There are lots of things that he remembers being taught or shown how to do -- how to tie on a snowshoe when we had the web straps, for example -- before the days of the harness; how to carry an axe safely; how to paddle a canoe; and how to bring a car out of a skid to name a few. Richard was allowed to experiment and try out how to do things. His parents presented to him an example of how to live in this world.
As for my friend Freida, her mom is a complex individual with multiple layers of mental health issues, making it very difficult to communicate with her. Frieda says she owes her mother love and respect, in spite of this. After all, her mother gave her life and managed to raise her in a dysfunctional environment that left their family in tatters. Freida also says she owes to her mother an open mind and a great deal of sensitivity and care, which is hard to do when she's the one extending all the grace. Frieda owes her mother the gift of her presence.
Frieda's father, on the other hand, was a gentle giant of a man who was obedient to Mom and never had a voice. He has passed on, but the memories of his kind, caring, loving heart grow fonder for Frieda with each year. She owes her dad honour and respect for his faithfulness to her mom.
Thank you to my friends for sharing their stories.
In my own life, I had a challenging relationship with my mother. A fatal illness brought her to her finest hour. She faced the fear and pain of her illness with grace and dignity and an enormous strength of spirit. That was probably her greatest lesson for me.
My father exemplified the unconditional parental love every child needs. I had 19 years of his love but it has stayed with me, tucked away in my heart for nearly 50 years. A parent role model unparalleled.
To everyone who is a parent, to all of us that have parents and for those people who hope to parent, these stories illustrate the importance of that responsibility.
If you have been touched by these stories, please share your own answer to the question in the comments section. Or perhaps use it as a conversation starter this holiday season.
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"That every little set back isn't the end of the world. My parents always overreacted about every little thing...now i immediately want to lose my shit everytime something little happens. anything from breaking a glass or running late, whatever. i've had to learn to just chill man." (offwhitehorse)
"That you don't have to be too nice to everyone. There are just some people you need to figure out its better to RUN from." (whowaswhatwhen)
"Eating right. I was born in the 70s in the south and all we ate was fried foods. I wish I had been taught to eat a moderate amount of healthy food. "Instead the motto was, 'if you put the food on your plate, you had to sit there and eat until it was all gone.'" (Ileokei)
"My parents never apologized to me for anything so it took me some time to learn that owning up to my own mistakes and saying sorry was okay." (lpilky) "How to learn from mistakes, since they don't admit to any. As an adult I realized how horrible that is. It's harder I guess to take responsibility, but it's the only way to improve your life." (gplex86)
"Intelligence isn't all I need to succeed" (onedappervagina)
"Basic household chores. Dishes. Laundry. Keeping things generally clean. Developing clean habits. My focus growing up was always school first. I have a great job and am in fantastic financial shape at 24 but my place is horrific and I can't seem to figure out how to keep it clean." (omglia)
"I'd say a work ethic or commitment, it's definitely something I've acquired myself (the work ethic is...in progress) but ever since I was a child I've never been pushed into committing myself to something, whenever I've wanted to quit I've just been allowed to" (Dib-Dab)
"How the world really works, they made life to be all black and white when it is the exact opposite." (mrshatnertoyou) "My parents never taught me about perception. I was raised to believe in absolutes. I thought everything had a right and a wrong and for every argument or thought there was a correct answer. In reality perception is everything. People provide different answers to the same question based on who is answering them and life is full of grey (very few things are black and white)." (rthrow18)
"Not just money management but, more importantly, saving and realizing that just because you want it doesn't mean you get it. I'm still struggling with this today as are many folks. Debt is bad."
"To try new things. This covers everything from eating avocados, to watching avant-garde movies." (seniorkite)
"The only thing that my parents ever told me regarding sex: 'Just wrap your jimmy son, we don't want grandchildren yet.'" (BrutalReckoning) "Nothing about the birds and the bees. The only time my mom talked to me about sex was when she walked into my room (before I was about to go off to college) and said, 'Hey, I was reading an article today about how Doctors discovered that sex leads to cancer.' Okay, Mom, ok." (reecia-ruu)
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