As parents, we hope (and also fear) that we are the predominant influence in our children’s lives. But there are many more players in the game of child-rearing. I have been thinking back on all the people in my life who contributed and compensated for that which my parents could not give me.
I was the first grandchild of my paternal grandparents, my only living grandparents. My grandmother adored me. She was not a warm fuzzy kind of grandmother, but knowing that I was her favorite was a major ingredient in my parental stew. NO ONE should ever have a favorite child or grandchild, in my view, having been on both ends of that messed-up dynamic, but there is something about feeling that everything you do is completely wonderful that definitely builds self-esteem. My grandmother liked to bake and to go shopping with me, while my mother did not. As the years went by and my grandmother would bring me gifts but bring nothing for my siblings (how stupid of her – she could have brought them a piece of gum and they would have been happy), I started to feel awkward about the favoritism. Eventually she came to disapprove of me and my hippie lifestyle. But those years of feeling special built a strong foundation for me that allowed me to flourish even though I knew that I was far from my parents’ favorite.
I had an aunt with whom I shared a bedroom until I was 8 years old. She would talk to me at night while we were in our beds, which made me feel really grown up. My mother was busy with my two younger sibs, so Aunt Ruthie would take me to Center City Philadelphia to the movies. We saw “Lady and the Tramp” and I got to carry her fur muff. Such a wonderful memory.
I had a lot of teachers in my 20 years of schooling, but my 6th grade teacher was the best. She was strict and no-nonsense and you NEVER wanted to get her angry, but she demanded excellence at all times and her expectations were sky high. Some may have found that to be too much pressure, but I found it inspiring. She turned me into an insatiable learner.
I grew up in a row house on a street that had 60+ houses on it. Everybody knew everyone else. Halloween was a blast, with so many welcoming houses on just that one street. My parents had us call the neighbors “Aunt” and “Uncle,” and they really became an extended family. My father played cards with the men and my mother played mah jongg with the women, so they were very present in my house and in my life. Some of them I didn’t like so much, like the neighbor who said, when I got a “B” in gym, “How did that happen – a klutz like you!” Or the neighbors I could hear through the adjoining wall, screaming at their kids. But many of them were kind and loving. Also, there were several boys who were about 5 years older than I was, and I thought they were SO COOL. One of them allowed me to read his MAD magazine, for the small fee of 25 cents (I think the magazine cost 50 cents at the time).
I had babysitters and camp counselors and bunkmates and roommates, all of whom had their input. I learned about all different kinds of music from a series of boyfriends. I learned about fine china and crystal and designer clothing from my wealthy college friends. One of my best friends from law school taught me that by increasing a waitperson’s tip by just a few dollars – say from $10 to $15 — it would make the recipient’s night, while also making me feel like a millionaire. My aunt-in-law taught me how to find the perfect gifts, how to lend money while retaining the borrower’s dignity, and how to make the most delicious turkey gravy.
There are so many more people who gave of themselves in ways that improved my life or taught me something important. I hope that the next time you fear that you don’t have enough wisdom or patience or creativity and that your kids will suffer as a result, you will take heart in the fact that there is a whole world of contributors out there, waiting to provide some of the things you cannot, and adding some spice to the parental stew.