I grew up on a steady diet of Gilligan’s Island, the Brady Bunch, I Love Lucy, and Bachman pretzel rods. I played little league, caught fireflies, collected baseball cards, and rollerskated to the Sugarhill Gang. We had no internet or cell phones. People kept a car for 20 years. Our phone number was four digits, our phone cord was four feet long, and we had four channels on the television. It was a much simpler, and in my view, a much better time.
I have many wonderful childhood memories but none are greater than having a loving mother and father. I wrote this article to help parents who may doubt their child-rearing skills or want to validate or improve an already impressive set of skills. Here’s a list of the top 20 lessons my parents taught me and why I’ll always be grateful for their parenting:
1. My parents taught me empathy. They explained why I shouldn’t pull our dog’s tail, pet her eyes, or ride on her back. They taught me not to throw rocks at squirrels or pour salt on a slug. We ceremoniously buried goldfish in the backyard. By age three, I knew how to be kind to animals.
2. My father taught me how to be a gentleman. He opened car doors for others, bought flowers, and never spoke disparagingly about women in my presence. When someone sneezed, he offered his handkerchief. He was so kind and well-mannered.
3. My mother taught me how to clean a toilet and a shower, dust, iron, vacuum, cook, and clean dishes. I was fully domesticated by age 10. As result, from college through adulthood, I never relied on anyone and I’ve never let anyone do for me what I can and should do for myself. My mother taught me how to be self-sufficient. She also taught me these tasks are not a woman’s job.
4. My parents exposed me to New York City culture at a young age. They took me to see Annie on Broadway and walked me through museums and outdoor antique festivals. The experiences helped me develop an appreciation for the arts and sciences.
5. My father taught me how to work hard and earn a buck. He taught me how to cut firewood, use tools, mow a lawn, weed, and shovel snow. I learned the importance of work ethic at a young age when he sent me to weed our neighbor’s lawn by hand at age eight. I earned one dollar which was my first lesson in learning the value of a dollar–literally. He helped me start a business in the neighborhood mowing lawns and shoveling driveways at age 12. He helped me get my first job at age 15 and drove me to work on nights and weekends. He let me use his car to sell water-based vacuum cleaners door-to-door when I was in high school.
6. My mother taught me to exercise. She starting playing tennis with me at age six. By sparking my interest in the sport, I’ve managed to stay in good shape and healthy for decades. I took that passion for tennis and volunteered to teach special needs children in the Special Olympics and at-risk children how to play tennis.
7. My mother made me feel special. She used to make me homemade birthday cakes and host birthday parties for me. I never needed attention as a child because I always received it from my parents.
8. My father never discussed problems at work. He chose to shield me from every trouble spot in his life so I would have a happier life. I can never remember hearing my father complain when I was growing up.
9. My parents taught me the importance of reading. My father used to read to me in his favorite chair and my mother used to read to me in bed. They were always reading books and newspapers.
10. My father was the least materialistic person I’ve ever known. He rarely bought anything. He kept a car until it didn’t run anymore. He couldn’t care less about labels or others’ perceptions. He taught me to live below my means and to save for a rainy day. I’m a minimalist today thanks entirely to his example.
11. My parents taught me the importance of writing and expressing gratitude. They taught me to write letters to keep in touch with relatives, to express appreciation for gifts, to bring joy to others, and to share my ideas to impact change. They showed me my voice mattered and instilled confidence in me to speak up. As a result, I wrote hundreds of handwritten letters as a child, published work, and still write today.
12. My parents loved me. They hugged and kissed me and told me how much they cared about me. They helped me cope with a speech impediment and taught me to be comfortable in my own skin. Their unconditional love made my childhood good. I didn’t realize how good it was until I grew up and volunteered to help abandoned and abused children.
13. My parents sacrificed for me. I remember going to the orthodontist when I was 13. The doctor told my father that I could get a retainer or braces. We couldn’t afford braces. I can remember my father saying, “This is going to affect how he looks for the rest of his life. We’ll pay the extra money.” He was so thoughtful, caring, and generous.
14. My parents never put pressure on me. My father often told me that my school grades are my grades. He said I should take more pride in them than anyone. As a result, I felt comfortable to be myself and do my best. It was easy to make my parents proud.
15. My parents always cheered for me. Whether I was writing for a newspaper, playing little league, running for office, starting a business, or applying for a new job, they were always rooting for me. They showed interest in everything I did and they were always present in my life. I still remember my father showing up directly from work cheering for me in his suit on the little league bleachers.
16. My father taught me how to be present for people in their time of need. My father went to great lengths to be present for sick relatives and friends and for their family in the aftermath of their passing. He taught me that after everyone has gone home and resumed their lives is when those suffering from loss need support the most.
17. My parents taught me how to be organized, make lists, and be proactive. I still make lists as a result of their example. Their advice to stay organized and avoid procrastination formed lifetime habits that have served me well.
18. My father was the best listener I’ve ever known. Knowing I could always count on him to listen, not interrupt, care, and offer advice provided so much comfort and calm in my life.
19. My parents never stopped giving me advice. I’ve heard parents state that they stop giving their children advice when they grow up. Even if children act like they’re not listening, the odds are good they hear you. Never stop teaching your children lessons. You will always be their parents and you will always have wisdom to share.
20. My parents sent me to a college in a city where I would be surrounded by people from dozens of countries. I never heard either of them speak a disparaging word about people based on their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. To the contrary, my father once told me, “Be so busy working on trying to find ways to maximize your own potential that you don’t have time left to judge others.” Their example taught me to embrace all people.
While I can never forgive my parents for not letting me stay up to watch the rescue episode of Gilligan’s Island in 1978, their contributions to my life certainly overshadow this error in judgement. Their way wasn’t necessarily the right way for everyone but it was the right way for me. The lessons they shared with me and the unconditional love they offered made my life worth living and shaped me into the person I am today. The way they raised me inspired me to dedicate my life to causes greater than my own self-interest.
I hope you find this list helpful and I hope it inspires you to be the best parent you can be for your children. You have enormous power to make a difference in their lives and the world.