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How Our Early Parenting Shapes Adulthood — the Good and Bad

What my mom and dad said that I'll never forget.

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illustration of parents over face silhouette of daughter, parenting
Marta Monteiro
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I was eight when I asked my dad to buy me a cradle for my small Ginny doll. He took my hand and walked me around the corner to the hardware store. We came home with a piece of balsa wood, a coping saw and glue. “I’m sure you can figure out how to make one,” he said.

And I did.

Now that I’m 80, I realize it was not that one particular incident, my first attempt at carpentry, that taught me that I could do anything I set my mind to. It was all the messages I received while growing up, both implicit and explicit, that helped to mold me into the woman I became. Not all children were as fortunate as I to be influenced by parents who were supportive and competent at being mom and dad.

My interview with psychotherapist Margaret DaRos underscored the considerable impact parents have on the foundation of a child’s development that affects adulthood, particularly in the all-important area of social skills. As DaRos explained, those raised in a caring and supportive home “are more likely to get along better with their peers."

When we were growing up, too often girls were told they could be nurses but not doctors, teachers but not scientists, cheerleaders but not ball players. Girls weren’t supposed to do the things boys did. It wasn’t ladylike to climb a tree or play in the mud. And those of us interested in learning, well, college was a place most went to meet their future husbands.

I am grateful that my parents didn’t conform to those societal pressures and stereotypes.

I was raised gender-neutral before the term ever became popular. There was no separation of girl and boy chores. My brother, sister and I all learned to build and light campfires. We learned to cook and bake and made cookies for our teachers to show them our appreciation. We each took turns cleaning and we all learned to sew, too. My brother used that particular skill later on to make a sail for the small craft he converted into his first sailboat. I used to climb rocks wearing his old jeans.

One year we tried camping. It rained and wasn’t much fun. Most people would have said, “Never again,” but my parents were not people to give up easily. So the following summer they bought a tarp and a small gas stove and, along with our tent, we tried it again. And we loved it — enough to spend our vacations camping through all of my teenage years.

I hadn’t realized how the freedom I was given to try new things led to a confidence that permeated my life until I met Marge.

Marge had no self-confidence. If she had to make a decision, she’d become overwhelmed. Only when she began to examine her early years did she realize that being the youngest in a family of eight children, her siblings did everything for her and wouldn’t allow her to take the slightest risk.

As therapist Robert Taibbi cites in a 2020 Psychology Today article titled “Always Walking on Eggshells, How to Stop," the parenting styles that shape adults do not have to be permanent. In other words, you can initiate a re-do — if home life was rough. As Taibbi puts it: “Decide on who you want to become based not on your fears, but your image of what a solid good adult can be. Think about the history you want to create, right here, today, right now.”

The messages I received as a child were, for the most part, positive: To appreciate what I had, to be kind, to help and care about others, to be considerate, open-minded and hard-working.

As I think of my upbringing, I remember the words of wisdom I received from my parents.

My mother was pragmatic. Whatever she needed to deal with, or do, she did — efficiently and quietly. She’d explain simply, “You just have to do what you have to do.” All these years later, when I’m faced with an unpleasant task, her words, “You just have to do what you have to do,” come back to me and I complete my job.

Another of my mother’s inspirational messages, one I would hear often whenever I wanted to put off doing my homework or cleaning my room was “It doesn’t pay to be lazy. Finish your chores and you can move on to other things.” I repeat her words often as I face a task I’d rather put off.

When I think of my dad and the messages I received from him I have to smile. My dad always saw the good in people and he brought his points across, not by lecturing, but with short, simple sentences that made me think. For instance, a negative comment about people might lead to his question, “Have you walked in their shoes?” All these years later when I see someone who makes me want to turn away, I say to myself instead, “What is his story?”

As I venture out to an unfamiliar destination, I hear my dad saying, “Just remember, as long as you have a mouth to ask directions, you’ll never be lost.” And as I pass a house of worship, I remember the day I asked my dad why we didn’t go in to pray. He’d stopped walking, turned to me, and patted his chest. “Good comes from in here.”

When my children tell me that I’m sounding more and more like grandma or grandpa I take that as a compliment. They did their job well.

What did your mom or dad say all the time that you will never forget? Let us know in the comments below.

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