Archives For Parents

Crime and punishment

October 29, 2013 — 2 Comments

Benjamin Spock’s classic The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care hit book shelves in 1946. Before Dr. Spock’s death, a half a century later, over fifty million copies of the book had been sold, making it the most popular book of the twentieth century in America, second to the Bible. His approach was lauded for validating parents in their use of common sense, for promoting flexibility over the more rigid approach that had previously been in vogue, and for encouraging parents to demonstrably express their affection to their children. To make the book accessible to the average household, this new parent handbook was priced at a whopping $.25 per copy.

My mom says she never had a copy of the book. She and my dad parented all five of us children without the assistance of a pediatrician-psychiatrist to affirm them in their common sense. They just went about their business, calling upon resources already at their disposal. Not that they didn’t encounter the occasional challenging situation from time to time, but for the most part, we pitched garden variety fits, engaged in garden variety sibling rivalry, and waged garden variety warfare on proscribed routines, directives and ethics.

It hadn’t previously occurred to me to comment on my folks’ methods of keeping their brood in line, but as I was musing on the most memorable events of my youngest years, one of their favored ways of impressing upon us the gravity of our misbehavior was…

Washing mouths out with soap.

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Ivory bar soap, circa 1954

Honestly, I can’t remember whether any of my siblings ever got the Ivory Treatment — I only remember the couple of times I found myself on the receiving end of this teaching stratagem. This infrequently used device was reserved for the perpetration of falsehood, duplicity, and other highly fraudulent behaviors. It could just as easily be applied when foul language or outrageous name calling came into play. I wish I could report to you just what it was that I said to warrant punishment on this order, but my selective memory has effectively blocked all recollection of any specific trespasses. Rest assured that I was guilty as charged, as my parents were quite careful to ensure that our every encounter with the Long Arm of Justice would have been duly preceded by ample instruction as to the expected, upstanding behavior.

The sudsy sentence was always executed with great dispatch. The guilty party would be escorted to the nearest sink, instructed to open his or her mouth, and a swift swipe of the soap bar across the tongue was administered. A new take on “belly up to the bar”.

I hated this punishment with a passion. Do they really think that putting that stupid soap in my mouth will stop me from thinking what I was thinking before I said what I said?!! Besides, my tongue doesn’t have any dirt on it, so washing it like dirty hands doesn’t even make any sense.

In all my childish indignance, my parents’ point was somewhat lost. Yet on some level, I think I realized that this negative consequence for children’s use of the tongue in an untoward manner was was chosen precisely for its metaphoric value, but was at the same time a highly effective deterrent. I, for one, immediately applied a neon Post-It to my brain that read: MUST NOT REPEAT THIS INCIDENT. EVER. After enduring a penalty “cleansing”, I would conscientiously eradicate lying and being ugly with my words from my agenda for a long, long while. I may have resorted to other naughty stuff, but definitely not that.

Another extremely effective tactic to curtail inappropriate behaviors, at least in dealing with my gregarious disposition, was to banish me to the bedroom during the middle of play. All the other kids would be outside whooping it up, and there I would be — imprisoned in a second floor cell with no one to talk to, be entertained by, or otherwise engage in shenanigans. I probably only spent a half hour to an hour in solitary confinement at any given time, but the duration seemed interminable. I’m sure I thoroughly contemplated my errant ways while alone and isolated, and no doubt vociferously pledged to do much better to the jailer when she came to fetch me at the end of my stint.

And finally… the dreaded paddle. My folks took one of those little light weight paddle ball paddles and removed the rubber ball and string. My dad even penned on the front of it: For Bad Burns’ Bottoms. The paddle’s assigned place was atop the refrigerator. It didn’t come down all that often, but when it did, we always knew which direct parental instruction we had violated. In all my childhood, I can only recall once when I felt I got a swat for something I didn’t understand was wrong. A commendable record on my parents’ part, all things considered.

Now lest you suspect my parents to be calloused or brutish in their methodology, bear in mind that virtually every household and classroom of the period was outfitted with a paddle. A kid could get a spanking from the principal at school and likely receive a second one for the same offense upon arriving at home. Attitudes and behaviors go in and out of fashion, and I believe the trend away from corporal punishment is a welcome one. I for one, don’t miss it, especially given the inherent potential for abuse.

But more important than the actual methods used, I suspect, are the motive and intent behind these methods. I know people who received physical abuse as children and have undergone countless hours of therapy to undo this damage. And I also know parents who would never lift so much as an aggressive pinkie finger, yet speak to their children with disdain and disrespect. Children who experience such verbal battering have the same need for assistance in overcoming debilitating feelings of unworthiness and shame. Both of these parenting modes are highly destructive and are to be eliminated from parental tool kits everywhere.

So perhaps Dr. Spock was onto something after all: use common sense in the care of babies and children. Firmly and lovingly communicate and adhere to appropriate boundaries, and generously administer affection and respect.

But maybe leave the Ivory out of the equation…?

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I was chatting it up with my mom on the phone last night. She’s a regular follower of Zero to Sixty in Five, quite naturally. I mentioned something about one of the stories I’d posted recently when she said, “You make me look good on your blog.”

“Yeah… well, you are good and you were good. Well, except for the times when you weren’t. But that’s not the point of this blog,” I shot back. And that’s the truth, as Edith Ann* used to say. I’ll clue you in on the biggest surprise I’ve had since I started this project of turning my memories into blog posts, day after day, these past seven and a half weeks: the Law of Attraction seems to be at work.

Okay, okay… I’m aware of the arguments claiming the lack of falsifiablility and testability of the Law of Attraction — that the supporting evidence for it is anecdotal and has no basis in scientific reality. Won’t challenge those claims right now. But I am here to “self-selectively report” that the more I think about and write about the things my parents did to care for me physically and emotionally, to help me learn about my world and to help me grow up, the more of these instances I am able recall and the more I appreciate their efforts as parents. It’s been oh so unexpected, and rather striking.

DSCN9284-silver

I could liken it to the silver coffee service a friend bequeathed to me recently. When I opened the box and saw the condition of the set, I momentarily thought of carrying it right on out of my house. Mind you, I was aware of the set’s value, it was just that it didn’t appear all that wonderful in the moment. Right after the fleeting impulse to pass the set on to someone else, I got out the silver polish and a cloth and began slowly buffing the pieces in the set. Predictably, with each application of polish and each swipe of the soft cloth, a coffee carafe, a sugar bowl, a creamer and a tray were restored to a former glory. Little by little the luster of the set was revealed, and now, from the center of my dining table, the coffee service reflects a soft and subtle shine.

Is the set perfect? By no means. It had been sitting in the box a little too long before I got to them and the excessive build-up of tarnish had marred the pieces in some places. Yet, these imperfections don’t detract from my overall perception of them: the coffee service displays a loveliness as a centerpiece and prized gift from someone whom I dearly miss.

The process of blogging about my childhood has been a similar process: my memories are the silver polish, the blog format has been the cloth, and sitting down to write the stories has been the elbow grease. With the passing of each week, my perception of the relationship I had with my parents has been freed of a layer of hazy residue, deposited over the years by who knows what. I mean, I always knew fundamentally that my parents had done more than just a “good enough” job parenting me, because I have never not been in touch with a feeling of being wanted and loved. But there was an internal dynamic — which I’ll label dashed expectations — that tripped me up and left a subtle, nearly imperceptible film of dissatisfaction.

Most likely, I would never have admitted it to myself, much less you, even if you had peered into the nether regions of my heart and called me out on it. It wasn’t until I began this recent process that would unwittingly buff the undesirable coating away that I even realized I had allowed it to gradually accumulate. But that’s the nature of our perceptions — you know, the Law of Attraction applied negatively: we see the gap between the ideal parents portrayed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue (Ward and June Cleaver, the Huxtables, Reba, et al) and our real parents, with their real weaknesses and real failings — and we feel slighted, disappointed, or maybe even betrayed.

So, what might happen if we chose to intentionally reflect on the things our parents did best? Even if there might not be that many positives to recall? Might this be just the right time to let our mamas, our papas off the perfectionist hook and release our notions that they don’t deserve to be seen through the lens of positivity? What if, in this releasing, we allow ourselves to be transformed by reframing our imperfect childhoods? What if, instead of keeping a record of their wrongs, we found freedom and satisfaction in making an accounting of their pluses? What if we were to allow that plus column of the ledger to seep into the pores of our minds, and gratitude for the things they got right to overtake our hearts? What if, instead of the ways in which they failed us, we let these other things became our focus? Would the Law of Attraction kick in and begin to liberate us?

Our parents chose life; let us be grateful. Through them, we received our temperaments, our capacities, our natural gifts and abilities; let us be grateful. If they nurtured, provided, protected, guided, or taught us in any way, so much the better; let us be grateful. A sense of entitlement to a perfect childhood will rob us of an opportunity to be blessed. Just as droplets of water cling to other droplets, attraction drawing them together to form a meniscus, may our selectivity of focus restore the luster on our perception of our relationship to our parents.

And then, let’s let them know how grateful we are.

* [Edith Ann was a character created by Lily Tomlin.]

tailor-logoPTA

When I was a first grader at School #47, my dad was elected president of the PTA. I thought this was pretty heady stuff: getting extra attention from my homeroom teacher, seeing his name in newsletters and announcements that went home in book bags, and feeling like our family was at the center of what was “happening” at my school.

One memorable event the PTA sponsored that year was to stage a comedy revue. My parents were in several of the skits which I remember them practicing at home. Mom was to do a Phyllis Diller routine about stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving, and she and Dad were to do a send-up of a popular talk show. There was another skit my dad would be in with the principal of the school. Dad was to play the part of a very near-sighted tailor and the school principal was to play the part of a customer who would come for alterations to his suit.

My parents may have noticed I had some reservations about their scripts, because I remember them assuring me that their lines were indeed funny and not to worry — the audience was going to love their schtick. Apparently this explanation alleviated my concern, because I remember really looking forward to the show.

On the night of the big event, I had a front row seat. (I was doubly excited because it was yet another occasion to dress up.) The skits went just like the rehearsals at our house and my parents had been absolutely right: the audience roared with laughter. My mom was especially hilarious describing the disaster she had created in her kitchen in an attempt to wrangle and truss a turkey. Then came my dad’s piece as the nearly blind tailor. He came out on stage with a tape measure hanging around his neck and very thick glasses. Mr. Snyder entered the “shop” and began to explain that he wanted his suit pants shortened. My dad got down on his knees, began measuring and talking a mile a minute in an attempt to convince his new customer he was just the man for the job.

Mr. Snyder stood there while his pants were being “fitted” and my dad reached for his sheers. Mr. Snyder wasn’t able to see what was happening below as my dad began snipping away. The pants legs got uneven and, in an attempt to make things right, he feverishly kept shortening one, then the other, until they were half way up the man’s calves! And, as predicted, the audience loved his antics and filled the auditorium with gales of laughter.

The evening was a huge success. Some days later, however, I could be found sitting out on the front porch writing to Mr. Snyder.

“Dear Mr. Snyder,” my letter began, “I’m sorry my dad cut your pants too short.”

Unfortunately, I had never seen the men rehearse the actual cutting part of the skit and so I was mortified by what my dad had done. I was also scandalized that the audience had laughed about it. I couldn’t believe my dad would actually ruin the suit of our school’s head administrator. Right there on stage. In front of everybody! That they had, no doubt, found an old suit at a thrift store just for the gag never entered my thinking, and consequently, the “joke” was completely lost on me. The letter was my attempt to do what I could to make amends.

“I hope you get a new suit very soon,” I continued. “Sincerely, Linda Burns.”

When I finished the letter, written with my very best printing, I folded it up to send to him. It was then that I realized I had neither an envelope, nor a stamp, nor an address. And I couldn’t possibly tell my parents I was doing this and thereby obtain the needed resources — they’d never understand. After all, they were the very ones who had erroneously considered this whole business quite funny. So, hitting a dead end, I did what any seven-year-old would do: I tucked the paper in between the cushions of the glider I was seated on and turned my attention to a comic book. (Follow-through has never been my long suit.)

The letter stayed there for months and months before my mom found it and brought it to me. That was when I confessed to her that my sensibilities had been offended by the whole sordid affair; she gently explained that Mr. Snyder was not upset because had been “in on the gag,” and that I needn’t worry. I could tell by her demeanor that she found my consternation slightly amusing.

Tally another one in the Color Me Clueless column of the ledger. Sheesh. I can’t quite believe how many things my parents said and did that I just didn’t get. As I’ve been writing these stories from my childhood I realize this happened a lot. I’m sure my parents didn’t realize how often, because I didn’t even think to tell them I was confused most of the time. Sigh. The up side to it all: now I’m the one who’s amused as I bring these incidents out of moth balls and appreciate the humor in my cluelessness.

But I never did let my dad help me hem my skirts.

“I don’t like my name.”

“How come?”

“It’s just so ordinary.”

“But you do know what it means, right?”

“Huh?”

For whatever reason, I’d never been told what my name meant. But then, I’d never been remotely curious about it either. Until that very moment, that is. The look on my face must have told my brother I was completely in the dark. So, as I stood in the doorway to his bedroom, my big brother proceeded to enlighten me.

Linda,” he continued, “is the Spanish word for pretty.” He had recently started beginning Spanish in school.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Pretty? Are you kidding? I tried my hardest to act nonchalant in the face of his revelation, but my insides were doing back flips. He’s telling me that this name I don’t really like actually means PRETTY?!! Why didn’t I know this before?!!

“Oh,” I replied. “That’s kinda cool.” Wow. I really needed to process this new info.

Parents (generally) do not intend to saddle their children with dull, out-moded, homely or otherwise dorky names. But it can happen. For reasons utterly impossible to discern before the nurse hands a blank birth certificate application to the new parents, some names are destined to become a ball and chain. An angelic, lovely, dashing, or even regal sounding name (in the ears of the parents) stands a chance of one day being considered the kiss of death by the child bearing the name, crushing his or her hopes of ever being cool.

I’ll share one unfortunate, yet unavoidable, way this can come about. Expectant parents of the 1950’s would have conscientiously picked out a boy’s name and a girl’s name, in anticipation of the blessed event. They would have likely paired these names with suitable middle names, and then repeated those names in succession, over and over, along with the family name, so as to be sure both the boy’s name and the girl’s name sounded very, well… nice. Whether they were going for names that were distinctive, or maybe that honored a family member, or fit some other noble criterion, they would have been sure to select the finest names possible to bestow on their new arrival.

For the sake of illustration, let’s just say that the girl’s name they had chosen with such care was Linda. And that they coupled Linda with the middle name Kay. The joyously expectant couple would not suspect, nor could they foreknow, that thousands upon thousands of other expectant parents were at the very same moment selecting and pairing those exact names for their unique, one-of-a-kind little princesses-to-be.

For centuries, Mary had reigned as the most popular girl’s name. (Apparently, being the mother of Jesus will catapult your name to the heights of extreme popularity for generations and generations to come.) Until the 1950’s, when it was eclipsed by the name…. (drumroll)Linda. In fact, so many people caught this wave that the popularity of the name played itself out within about a decade, after which it was retired to the morgue. I’ve only ever met one person named Linda who was born after the 1950’s. But among those close to my age, well that’s another story, and the main reason I didn’t like my name. (The other reason was that each of my siblings had a name that could be shortened to a nice, crisp nickname. Lin just didn’t have a ring to it.)

Every classroom I was ever in, from kindergarten through college, had multiple Lindas. I was never the only one. There were always two others, and occasionally three. This meant that when other kids were allowed to sign their school papers with just a first name, we Lindas had to add our last initials. I was never afforded the luxury of being just Linda; I was always, always Linda B. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it messed with my identity. It didn’t seem singular or special to be one of a bunch of girls with the same name. For years I coveted an uncommon name like Charlotte, or, be still my heart, Veronica. (Remember the Archies?) After all, I had a penchant for glam, and common simply did not translate into glam.

And then my brother dropped the Spanish bomb on me. With his one simple statement, my resistance to having been given such an ordinary name was dissolving. So, it means pretty. That seemed rather special to me. So Mom and Dad hadn’t saddled me with such a boring name after all. As I was rethinking my entire paradigm, my brother pulled out one more ploy in his attempt to change my attitude about having a lackluster name: he informed me that a song had been written about Linda.

“Whu?…” Once again, I found myself standing drop-jawed in the face of another one of his pronouncements.

“Yeah, it goes like this,” he said, at which point he pulled out his trombone and began playing the melody. It was very, well… pretty. I liked it a lot. And from that point on I loved my name. Whenever I found myself among other Lindas, I viewed us as members of an exclusive club, inducted by parents who just might have fallen in love with this song… or maybe even fell in love to the song.

Linda Buddy Clark

Popular crooner, Buddy Clark, singing “Linda.” Clark’s successful career was cut short in an airplane crash, but his song lives on in my heart.