Like most pediatricians, I often think about parenting. It’s hard to ignore when your days and some nights are surrounded by it in a variety of forms … the good the bad, and the ugly. Recently, I was trying to recall my own parents’ (mostly my Mom’s) style of parenting and discovered that I was having trouble remembering many of the specifics of how my sister and I were raised.
The haziness of that recollection could simply reflect my aging memory, but I prefer to interpret it as a sign that our parents consciously avoided being heavy handed in their approach. Granted, my sister and I have grown up to be reasonably agreeable adults and were relatively unadventurous children. But, we were far from angelic.
My mother was a quiet person. In fact, I have trouble recalling much about the sound of her voice. She was not one to debate or argue. Although my parents had their disagreements, my mother would refuse to argue, which infuriated my father. Instead she would state her position once and wait for the issue to play out. The result usually vindicated her softly stated position.
But, my mother wasn’t perfect, and it is those few parenting missteps that I remember … most of them fondly. For example, when she first heard me swear (I don’t even remember the word), she said that I was to have my mouth washed out with soap. I assume she had heard this advice from my grandmother. However, she wasn’t quite clear on the technique. The result was a lot of fumbling around with a large bar of soap and a very small mouth. It certainly wasn’t a deterrent in large part, because I sensed she was giggling during the ordeal.
I don’t recall being spanked, but my mother was not adverse to physical deterrent. After years of reminding me to sit up straight at the dinner table, she took to nonchalantly – and without a word – poking me between the shoulder blades with a fork as she passed behind me while serving supper. No more idle threats, just a sharp reminder. Of course, it was no more effective than the soap, and I am still a sloucher.
My mother occasionally made attempts at anticipatory guidance with mixed results. One cold December morning as I was heading off to school, she took me aside and cautioned, “Now Willy, don’t ever stick your tongue on a cold pipe.” I’m not sure what prompted this warning because it was decades before this foolishness made it to the silver screen in Jean Shepherd’s “ A Christmas Story .” Up to that point, putting my tongue on a cold pipe was an activity that had never crossed my little mind. But now she had planted the seed and for many winters I couldn’t pass a parking meter without the little devil on my shoulder whispering in my ear, “Go try it.”
The only parenting misstep for which I still hold a grudge is one in which my mother ignored her ample storehouse of good sense and floated with the mainstream of bad parental advice. Those of you born prior to 1965 probably share my painful memories of having to sit on the edge of the pond or lake until it had been exactly an hour since you had last eaten – eaten anything! A thoughtlessly nibbled cookie could result in a stomach cramp that could send you to the bottom, never to take another breath of air. It is unclear which medical genius came up with this idea, but I hope he is rotting in hell, doubled over with unremitting abdominal cramps. A rough calculation reveals that between the ages of 7 and 14 years, I wasted nearly 1,000 child-hours sitting on the edge of the town pool, impatiently waiting for peanut butter sandwiches to digest. I know my mother knew that the whole stomach cramp thing was bogus. But, she wasn’t strong enough to swim against the terrible tide of old wives’ tales.
Despite these trivial errors when I was a young child, my mother did her best parenting when I reached adolescence. Pleasantville, N.Y., was a small town of 5,000, and my mother seemed to know two-thirds of them by their first name. Or, at least I thought she did. Her web of contacts covered the town like a blanket. I was convinced that, like Santa Claus, she knew when I was sleeping, she knew when I was awake, she knew if I’d been bad or good. You get the picture. It was only many years later that I realized I had been buffaloed. Her omniscience had been a masterful act … but it had worked.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .