Teaching your children well. Mostly. Generally speaking.

peony ©Liz Gumbinner“Most people are so busy knocking themselves out trying to do everything they think they should do, they never get around to what they want to do.” — Kathleen Winsor (via Leslie Fandrich)

Recently I’ve had several friends lose parents and other elderly relatives close to them. It’s strange how these things often happen all at once, or so it always seems to me. Rule of threes? Rule of sixes? It changes.

Let me be clear: I don’t like people dying. (Go figure.) I don’t have the easy comfort of a faith that suggests we go to some better land, or we’re up in the clouds sporting angel wings and dancing with our childhood guinea pig, as awesome as that might be. Though let’s be clear: if there is a place that one can dance with guinea pigs, I would like to go there. It might even be as simple as a Flaming Lips concert with some shamanic hallucinogens.

However something has changed in me. For the first time, when I hear about the deaths of elderly relatives I’m not just thinking about my own parents, but I’m thinking about myself as that elderly parent one day. That’s a really strange shift.

But it’s also why hearing and reading so many thoughtful reflections about parents from their adult children has been so fascinating. Helpful, even.

I think it’s letting me figure out what kind of parent I want to be.

Last week I listened to a friend discuss her mother who had recently passed. What really amazed me was that she wasn’t merely reflecting on things they had done together or memories they shared, but on the things she learned from her.

She could actually put so many of them into clear, tangible statements: She created a home that was the glue that bound our extended family together. She helped me understand the importance of hard work. She taught me not to skimp on the details. She showed me that if everyone pitches in, things will get done. She taught me about having a vision and sticking to it, even if no one else sees it.

It was incredibly moving. And motivating.

Of course it made me think about how my girls might remember me and the things I taught them. Not just remembering the books we read before bed, but that I always insisted we finish the Harry Potter book before we could watch the next movie. Not just remembering that we trudged out for ice cream on muggy days, but that it’s worth walking the extra four blocks to go to the good place. And by the way, it’s okay not to finish your cone every time.

I hope that one day my girls will say, my mother showed me the importance of grandparents and cousins and friends that feel like family. She taught me respect for my own intelligence. She taught me that you should never be afraid to ask a question. She insisted that we can speak our minds but still be nice.

I learned that bullies and mean girls are to be pitied–just before you walk away from them. I learned that lots of families make different choices but it doesn’t always make them wrong, even if they seem that way, and even if kids are allowed to drink chocolate milk every single day for lunch. I learned that it’s important to do your best not because you want an A, but because you want more options in life. I learned that when you cook, you clean up as you go along.

I learned that having a dance party in our pajamas is better than watching another episode of My Little Pony.

I learned that I should always be nice to my sister because we will always have each other.

I learned that she was not a perfect mother (and I have a list of 14 Thing I Will Never Do as a Parent to prove it), but that she was willing to say “I’m sorry…I’ll try to do better next time” and that’s okay.

And then it struck me how many of these things I learned from my own parents.

(Except for the My Little Pony part, because that wasn’t around when I was a kid. I am old, people.)

And so, the cycle continues.

Mostly we all parent by the seat of our pants, don’t we? I know I sure do. We’re so busy catching up, just checking off the to-do list (or more likely, not checking off the to-do list and just stealthily bumping the task to the next day then the next then the next…), there’s not always time to reflect. There’s not always the time to be mindful about why we do the things we do. Sometimes it’s easier just to blurt out a NO, instead of thinking, wait, I can say yes.

God, I sound so self-help-y. I know it. I’m sorry and I promise not to start linking to Anthony Robins and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” any time soon. I suppose death just puts me in that kind of space.

Still, I like writing down the things I want to be remembered for. Hopefully it will help me remember to actually do them.


Is there something you learned from your own parents that you would like to be remembered for too?


28 thoughts on “Teaching your children well. Mostly. Generally speaking.”

  1. I learned that if I snottily ask my mother, “What?!? Are you going through menopause?” when she is cranky, she will not speak to me for a week. So, when my own tween snottily asked me “What?!? Are you getting your period?” when I was cranky this week, I gasped, told her why that wasn’t nice, and then made sure we were snuggling and laughing on the couch within an hour as I told her about when I said something similar to my own mom. For me, it’s not that I’m a “better” mom, b/c heaven knows I screw up a LOT, but it’s that I really, really, really try to circle back to close any hurt feelings so we can start again.

    1. That is a great lesson Christina. I think what you learned is that you can respond to something awful with kindness.

  2. The biggest thing my Dad (of all people) taught me was to never rely on a man. When I started college, he told me to make sure I was educated enough to get a job that would allow me to stand on my own feet financially. I want my daughter to learn that from me. Hell, I want my SON to learn it too.

    Oh and BTW, how dare you…NOTHING is more important than another episode of MLP (sorry, I’m obsessed and need help)

    1. My mother said the same. She used to say “If you want to marry a doctor…just go be a doctor.”

      Funny, but the point was taken.

      (Come over and watch MLP with my kids any time. No, really. I’ll be in the bedroom rewatching Game of Thrones.)

  3. I’ve previously heard the advice that you should write what you want your obituary to say because it will help guide your priorities in life. This is a more profound version of that: To be the parent we want to be remembered being. Thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

    1. Thank you – I think I’d be freaked out writing my obituary. But this I can do because it still belongs to the living.

  4. The biggest lesson my parents taught me that we are part of a larger community and that the community is only as strong as its weakest members. We have an obligation to help those in need.

    The only time my Dad ever articulated one his parenting “lessons” was when he told me, “We raised you to make a difference.” When I hear my Dad’s voice in my head, that’s what he’s saying.

    There are lots of other lessons, but these are the ones that stand out.

    1. Your parents and mine would get along just great. That’s beautiful and I love how they expressed it.

  5. At this moment in time the thing that stands out for me from my childhood about my parents (beyond honesty and kindness and loving to learn) is a harmony between making us feel safe and loved and important, and them having their own lives and interests. My mom in particular was always busy with her own pursuits, creating fine art and running her business, gardening and cooking and sewing…. But we never felt neglected while she had her own life and we never resented her for doing her own work. It didn’t have to be all about us. We were proud of her, and still are. It inspired me and my brothers to pursue our own interests, and I hope that’s something I pass on to my own kids.

  6. I do have faith. But it’s never an “easy comfort” and while, yes, telling children about angels and wings and seeing friends is a way to explain heaven, adults mature in their faith have both a more mature understanding and mature questioning of what the life after this one may hold.

    That said, I still miss my father very much. What he taught me was how to be a woman. Here’s something I wrote about him recently. http://tinyurl.com/ozwwnwv

    1. Please don’t take offense or take that as me being facetious, J. I’ve had multiple conversations with friends of faith and they have described it as an easy comfort–not because it’s easy to deal with death, but because if you (they) buy the afterlife business, that comfort comes more easily. I’m sorry if it came across as “an easy out” which wasn’t my intent.

      Of course it’s complex as are our belief systems. And I know you are incredibly thoughtful in the way you process pretty much everything in life, especially the hard stuff.

      Thanks for sharing that link. You’re a lucky woman.

  7. I think that sometimes the lessons we learned aren’t always pretty.
    I learned that family is first (my parents endured an unhappy marriage until we were all grown up).
    I learned that I wasn’t good enough (for my mother–still trying to mend that internal feeling). I have since learned that I am.
    I learned that my struggles have to be my own and not my children’s.

    Parenting is messy and I hope that the lessons I teach my children directly and indirectly stay with them and are lessons they want to pass on to their own children.

  8. I hope the thing my kids will learn from me is how to apologize and mean it. Everyone screws up, sometimes. A real apology is a dying form of compassion. Not “I’m sorry you feel that way,” either, but “I never meant to hurt you” or “I was careless with my words” or “I screwed up and there’s no excuse, but I hope you can forgive me.”

  9. We learn so much from those around us whether we notice it right away or not until they are gone and we reflect back on it. For those who aren’t lucky enough to have a strong foundation at home, I hope that they are able to learn valuable lessons elsewhere and pass them down to their children. Growing up with Anne of Green Gables as an idol figure you implant yourself with valuable lessons such as that riches are great but it is things that are unseen that last, or that tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it. It is messages like these that I hope can be passed on from generation to generation.

  10. My Dad taught me to have faith in myself. To build my internal life as much as I build my life with others, because then I can truly know if I can survive and endure the inevitable difficulties that are part of being alive.

    In essence, he said, “you are whole and complete and can do what you decide to do with and for yourself. You have the strength. Believe it.”

    Regarding “easy comfort,” I see it more as reconciliation. My uncle passed about 18 months ago, after a troubled life. I see him, in death, at peace, reconciled with all that separated him from it in his life. For me, that’s possible with God.

  11. My mom taught me that it is better to be kind than cool. (Unfortunately it was not a lesson I was ready to learn in seventh grade.)

    My mom taught me to always leave a room better than she found it.

    My mom taught me that family is everything.

    My mom taught me how to make a home feel cozy even if the furniture is ancient and the towels are fraying at the edges.

    I hope that I teach my kids the same things, only with more new towels. Thanks for this post, Liz!

    1. I’m fascinated that so many of us learned that “family is everything.” I wonder if that’s the kind of thing that draws us to document our memories with our children, as bloggers. There’s got to be a correlation, right?

  12. I just had the most interesting conversation with my mom, about her anticipated becoming an elderly parent. It was a startling, but also moving and not-as-intense-as-it-sounds conversation. She hopes to have another decade of full blown independence (she just turned 70), and we talked about the possibility of getting a duplex when they are not quite able to be fully independent any more. And in-home assistance, because she really doesn’t want to put all of that work on me.

    What I learned from her, when I was younger, was really and truly that women could do anything we put our minds too. (Mom has had an amazing career!) I also learned the importance of spending time with friends and with family, the fun of cooking and baking together, and the importance of predictable time together. In spite of both of my parents crazy careers, we ate dinner together approximately 99% of the entire time I was growing up, and during dinner, we all talked to each other about our days, our work, and things that were important to us.

  13. I sometimes wonder if my kids will remember for me for some totally random thing I would never guess. Some of my strongest memories are moments my parents didn’t even think were significant, and probably don’t remember. Like the time my dad got me an ice cream cone while driving me back to college (I was crying and didn’t want to go). He said nothing…just silently pulled into Baskin Robbins, as it was the only way he knew how to comfort me. It was the sweetest, most loving thing.

  14. There is a place where our loved one’s go. It is in our heart and in the core of our being. My parents are with me every day. All I remember, now that they are gone, is the fierce love and protection they gave me. I have so much gratitude for all they passed on to me. The good ethics through their strong power of example. And a list too long to mention.

    You are an amazing Mom. And you will leave an amazing legacy. This I know…

  15. Between 2005 and 2008, I lost all four of my grandparents. The last two in three months time in 08. I think it made me see my mom in a whole new light. We’ve always gotten along and been friends, even when I was a teen. Yet it made me realize that one day it will be me moving in with her for the last year of her life to make sure it’s filled with love and strawberry ice cream every day. It just changed things.

    As a mom it made me realize that the little things matter more than the big things. Ice cream for dinner on a Tuesday and movies in my bed is as fun to my kids, as a trip to Disney would be. Trust me, my kids like Disney, but they will mention the smaller things months later.

  16. I have a good relationship with my mom, but being fallible as any other person, it’s actually her flaws that I learn a ton more from. It’s almost like her unconditional love is a given lesson that I’ll take; instead I tend to notice the quirks that I tell myself I probably wouldn’t do as a mother myself.

  17. My mom taught us to be the one who helps. She always monitors old people to make sure they can navigate stepping down from a curb. Holiday dinners are open to anyone who doesn’t have someplace else to be. Families in need get whatever there is to give — money, clothes, food, toys.

    She also always thanks military people for their service whenever she sees someone in uniform. I’ve been too shy to follow that example myself yet, but I always think my gratitude really hard.

  18. Liz, I just saw this now! (Shows how much I’m reading online these days) Thanks for the link, isn’t that a fabulous quote? I’ve since changed it, but it seems to me I put it up there soon after my own mother died this year. This was such a beautiful and true post. Thank you for your wise words. xo

Comments are closed.