At the end of my childhood hallway hung a needlepoint tapestry titled “Children Learn What They Live.” It’s a bit tautological. What else could we possibly learn? What bullshit…
“If a child lives with criticism,
He learns to condemn.”
“The stream of inanities begin,” I condemn. Where did I learn to be so critical? Mom cross-stitched author Dorothy Law Nolte’s aphorisms into a banner we saw every day — as we entered the bathroom, headed to play and eat, or made our last trip to bed down each night.
My little sister, 9 years younger, read it less frequently, hopefully not absorbing the unironically self-unaware message…
“If a child lives without a penis,
She isn’t included in the lessons.”
Of course, this was written in the mid 1960’s, before women became equal and the Equal Rights Amendment passed…uh…nevermind. I must have read the poem a thousand times, and wondered if it was directed at me, or at my father. Was I supposed to be learning? Or, were these warnings to Dad; talismen designed to curb the vagaries of his behavior we might encounter any given day…
“If a child lives with ridicule,
he learns to be shy.”
… might have been designed to stop Dad from calling me over as he pulled a cigarette from the pack of Camels, tamped it on top of my head three times to “compact the tobacco” and saying “See, Robby… you are good for something.”
You’d think with the amount of time we spent in Church, Mom could have left off
“If a child lives with shame,
he learns to feel guilty.”
I’m not sure I absorbed and integrated any of these lessons into my life, but I did learn:
“If a parent thinks a poster will substitute for parenting,
He is likely to repeat the cycle.”
Hence, the “Dare to…” poster that has dominated the entrance to my boys’ bedrooms these last 19 years. A parenting A to Z lesson. Twenty-six things your should dare to do as a person. I noticed a long time ago that not everything we can or should do is told to us, and I hoped that if they ever read this poster it might fill in a gap in my parenting.
Ask for what you want.
Believe in yourself
Change your mind
Do what you love…”
…and so on. When I placed this I thought it had two advantages over the “Children Learn…” banner. First, it was a list of positive actions a person could take to make their life better. Second, it was subversive. “Dare to Question conformity.” The aphorisms were empowering. Change your mind, be yourself, do what you love, speak your truth.
But, as my children leave the house, I’m reasonably certain they learned more, much as I did, directly from their parents. I learned…
Screaming doesn’t make you respectable.
Avoid Dad if you know he’s been drinking.
Sometimes he won’t show up.
Parents don’t know how their words sting and last a lifetime
Parents will likely be hypocrites to their banners.
My kids learned the same, but hopefully a little less, and they will reduce the cycle a little further with their children. And in 40 years I hope they’ll learn, as I am now, that we have no idea what our parents went through and a little graceful forgiveness is worthwhile.