I often see memes touting the rules that were prevalent for my Baby Boomer generation. They all speak of a more authoritarian way of parenting than I never actually experienced. I’m not sure why, but I don’t recall many spankings or punishments happening inside our home. By brothers and I were certainly not perfect, but my mom, who raised us alone after my father died, seemed to have a different way of keeping us grounded than creating a system of stern rules and consequences.
My mother always said that Dr. Spock was her guru when it came to child rearing, and that may be. I’ve never read any of his ideas, nor do I recall seeing a copy of his book in our home. Nonetheless she often referred to the venerable old theories that supposedly came from his best selling prescription for bringing up children. This included daily naps and a routine time for almost everything during the day, concluding with a regular bed time. We could almost set our watches based on whatever we happened to be doing at any given time. This foundation of set activities became particularly valuable after my father died when we were all still very young. It provided with a sense of profound security that we certainly needed to navigate our new normal without Daddy.
My mother created a healthy environment inside our home. She provided us with a daily regimen of nutritious foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner and an afternoon snack. The food that she purchased was part of a plan, so we never helped ourselves to anything without her permission lest she fall short in the meals that she had envisioned. She did not like us to waste precious food, so she taught us to take a small amount at first, and only go back for seconds if we were sure that we would be able to eat what we had taken. Nonetheless, she never made any of us eat anything that we did not want, even if we had accidentally taken too much. Food was associated with love, good conversations and lots of laughter.
I literally only recall being spanked one time, and that came from my father. Even at the time I understood that I had crossed a line of defiance. I knew that I was more than deserving of the thump on my backside that didn’t even hurt. After that I never again received any form of corporal punishment, and I don’t recall my brothers facing the hand, or switch or belt either. Mama’s favorite form of rehabilitation was a calm lecture explaining why a particular action was not acceptable. She’d guide us with a soothing voice and lots of reasoning, and then hug us to remind us that her love for us endured even when we had crossed a line.
I suppose that some people would see my mother’s child rearing practices as a bit too lax, but the proof was in the pudding. My brothers and I responded positively to her ways, and mostly acted responsibly. Somehow she made it easier and more preferable to be good. We wanted to please the loving angel that she was, and so we mostly turned our backs on temptations. We would have felt guilty taking advantage of her goodness and trust in us.
Things changed after my mother became afflicted with bipolar disorder. The disease overtook her mind, making her fearful and confused. She began to use guilt as a tool for controlling us in ways that were foreign to the very essence of how things had been. I was old enough to realize that her illness was speaking, not the person she actually was. I suspect that it was more difficult for my youngest brother who was still in his pre-teen years to deal with the sudden shift in her personality. At that point she became far more likely to use words as a weapon, and often uttered devastating criticisms that cut to the bone. It felt as though her entire being had been captured by some alien force that we did not recognize.
Luckily our good Mama always returned after a cycle of depression and mania. She seemed blessedly unaware of how she had been during her illness, and we happily embraced her just as she had always been. We reveled in the generosity of her heart and thrived in her love until the next time when we had to endure the horror of that came from her psychotic and manic moments. She had given us so much over the years, that somehow we always knew that we had to just muddle through the hard times because the good times would prove to be so wonderful.
I don’t know if I should give credit to my mother or to Dr. Spock or both for the wondrous job that she did parenting me and my brothers. She made every single day of our childhood seem safe and wondrous and filled with unconditional love. As a parent I would learn how difficult it is to maintain such a steadiness from day to day, but she always seemed to simply delight in the privilege of being our mom. The sacrifices she made were boundless. We never went to bed without seeing her gentle smile and hearing her voice assuring us of her love in spite of the mistakes we had made during the day. The rules of my childhood were actually quite simple and might be summed up in a very simple meme, “Be kind.”
Because my mother practiced what she preached, my brothers and I turned out fine. I’ve realized over time that our children are always watching, and they will either consciously or unconsciously follow the example of what we do, not what we say. We have to be what we want them to be. That’s the best rule of all.