by Elisabeth Stitt
The Proverbs of Parenting
When you learn the proverbs of a language, you not only learn to put words and phrases together, you learn the inside culture of the language. Remember, a proverb is a widely accepted truth that is stated in a simple way (When it becomes so well-known and accepted that it has been around for a long time, it becomes an adage--a distinction really only interesting to your nearest language professor).
Let’s think about some of the proverbs and how they characterize the people who use them. For example, in my mother’s family there was a clear sense of “There must be order.” In her family there was a pretty firm rule that "there is a place for everything and everything has its place.”
Personally I always liked the proverb “A stitch in time saves nine.” Of course, my family still used it to mean that attending to something when it is a small problem--like a little hole in your shirt--saves you a lot of trouble compared to letting the problem become big--like when the hole rips all the way down to the cuff, but I especially liked it because we would joke, “A Stitt in time saves nine.” Now what was a warning against procrastination was a source of pride because it meant that Stitts (my family name) were so useful and handy, that a Stitt could do the work of nine people.
How did adopting that proverb affect my family culture and the person I became?
Well, for one, it meant that we Stitts worked hard. There were lots of chores and fixing things. Most weekends were spent maintaining the garden or doing small repairs around the house. From this training we developed an excellent work ethic. I learned to do homework early and systematically. Projects never became overwhelming because I always did whatever little piece I could do as soon as I knew that it had to be done. There is no doubt in my mind that living by the proverb “A stitch in time saves nine” has saved me a lot of heartache and helped me manage the complicated job of being a teacher.
So what are the rules or proverbs that you grew up with?
If you think about issues that are important in families, I’m sure you’ll remember some. Think about money, gender issues, perfectionism, time, food, lifestyle, work, religion, chores, allowance, etc. Here are some that come to me off the top of my head:
Money doesn’t grow on trees.
Sugar and spice and everything nice--that’s what little girls are made of!
Good enough for government work.
The early bird gets the worm.
There are starving children in Africa.
Don’t burn both ends of the candle.
Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
Of course, the funny thing is is that you can easily think of sayings that seem to contradict these so-called truths:
You can’t take it with you.
Perfect is good enough.
You’ll get there when you get there.
Eat, drink and be merry!
No one writes on his gravestone, I wish I’d worked more.
Proverbs are often short and sweet. They usually have a nice ring to them. They are easy to remember. By using shared phrases, it is easy for us to relate to other people who share a similar viewpoint. Your family might have its own phrases, so consider those, too. In my family we were big on commitment. If you said you were going to do something, you did it. Only we expressed it as “Commitment with a capital C!”
Are the phrases and sayings of your family coming to you now? Get out your pen and paper and start a list. Think of as many as you can. If you get stuck, call a sibling or parent and brainstorm together.
Now that you have your list, I want you to give careful thought to each statement. It is really important to keep in mind that no particular proverb is the proverb you need for effective parenting.
We are governed by the sayings we grew up with.
That might be wonderful if the sayings are serving us well. But to what extent are they serving us? And what if they are not? What if as adults we have taken them to extremes?
One of the sayings growing up in my house was: “Think of others before you think of yourself.” The expectation was very clear. You can imagine the benefit here. A family of people who are very considerate of each other tends to run smoothly. We were strongly connected as a family unit because we put our personal preferences aside to meet the needs of the family. That close bond gave me a lot of security. I was also known to be very kind at school. My family had trained me to be aware of other people’s feelings. I looked to see who was unhappy and sought to include them or share my things with them--whatever it took to make people feel better. That awareness of others has contributed to my success as a teacher and as a person.
Every value has an advantage, but taken too far has a disadvantage.
But what is the cost of always thinking of others before you think of yourself? For me, the biggest harm was that in putting others before myself all the time, I began to lose my sense of self. Why form your own opinion--your own preferences--if you are just going to acquiesce? True, it made me very easy going (I will eat just about any food you put in front of me), but it also made me a bit spineless, having no practice at sticking up for what I might like to do or how I might like things to be. Keeping everyone happy might make life easier in the short run , but it is not very healthy in the long run.
With my own daughter, I have made an effort to teach her to find a balance. Yes, I do want her to think of others. I want her to weigh her own needs against the needs of the community. I want her to work with others to explore how everyone’s needs might get met. But I don’t want her to do it at the her own expense. Fortunately, she went to a school that constantly reinforced this lesson so that over the course of many years of being in the same class together, her classmates were sensitive to whose decision had prevailed last time or who still hadn’t had his first choice--for example--of role in the class play.
Take another look at your list. I want you to really take your time here to reflect thoughtfully. These messages were powerful shapers of your life and whether you have gone along with them or rebelled against them, they are still with you.
For each proverb, consider the following questions:
•How did living by this rule make me the person I am today?
•What benefit has come from living with this rule?
•How has adhering to this rule limited me or my life in some way?
•Where would I like to go/what would I like to do in regards to this rule in the future?
Live Your Life By Choice, Not Default
One goal in reflecting on these questions is to live your life proactively, not reactively. Not only will you be happier yourself knowing that you are making deliberate choices, but that clarity will help you to be a more effective parent who does not second guess himself.
Now that you have looked at the rules of your childhood in terms of your self, it is time to consider, what are the attitudes or philosophies that you would like your children to adopt. Your clear lessons, the oft-said family sayings, help guide your children.
Go to your list again. Write below the three to five proverbs you would like your children to really get, the ones that are going to be your parenting fallback position as your children grow through new developmental stages.
How do values play out in real life?
For better or worse (and I’ll share some of my “worse” with you in a moment), here are the key ideas I instilled in my daughter.
Don’t do for the child, what the child can do for herself.
I’ll always love you, no matter what: I won’t always love what you do.
Find the balance between meeting your own needs and the needs of others--especially of those less fortunate than you.
“Please,” “Thank you” and other polite phrases do make the world a better place.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Having a daughter in college gives me some justification to evaluate the effectiveness of my guiding principles.
•From “Don’t do for the child, what the child can do for herself,” Julie has certainly learned to be very independent. She has strong opinions and takes care of the details of her own life. Except for paying for college herself, she has taken on many of the responsibilities of being an adult I am proud to introduce to the world.
• “I’ll always love you, no matter what; I won’t always love what you do,” is a rule that I think has served us well. Some days repeating it helped her calm down and move on, but lots of days it helped remind me that children misbehave when they are feeling disconnected and need empathy.
•“Find the balance between meeting your own needs and the needs of others--especially of those less fortunate than you” has been a little trickier--perhaps because it is a balance, perhaps because I still have to fight against my mother’s voice in my head to always think of others first. Actually, when I consider it objectively, I think Julie is very good at finding the balance. Ironically, emotionally it is still hard for me to not see considering your own needs as selfish even though intellectually I am very comfortable with the idea that each individual is her own person with her own needs and wants (and that it is okay to want things!).
•For the most part I stand by the expectation of pleases, thank yous and common courtesies though maybe in always being polite, it might seem like you are not free to express a full range of emotions, which in turn might mean that it is not okay to feel a full range of emotions. I think if you asked Julie she would say that she was expected to control herself and “keep it together,” although I don’t remember using that exact phrase ever. On the other hand, many many people have told me what a pleasure Julie is to have around, how easy she is to get along with, and how she brightens wherever she is. Those are qualities that have made her welcome and appreciated as she moves out into the world.
•A penny saved is a penny earned. Again, that is not a phrase I used specifically, but I modeled it all the time. Unlike her stepbrothers who give little thought to what a thing cost, Julie keeps track of the current gas prices and knows where to buy it at its cheapest. She is also an excellent saver, having gone to college with most of her high school allowance in tact. Sounds pretty good, right? For the most part yes. But what about the balance of being a cheerful spender? I fear I haven’t taught Julie enough about that either in word or deed.
Be thoughtful about your priorities and be willing to reexamine them.
What’s my conclusion then? I guess it is that it is complicated. Our children will without a doubt benefit from our clear policies. Yes, there may be a downside, so it is worthwhile being really thoughtful about our policies, but in general, if we want to raise adults, having clear goals will help us get there.
It is important to note here that since Julie’s dad and I divorced before she was three, I wasn’t in direct conflict with him when it came to deciding what are the important lessons I wanted Julie to learn. As a single mother, I got to set policy. Of course, it also meant that I had no control over what was being taught or modeled at her dad’s house. Happily, I think she got the best of her dad, and I feel she was only enriched by having multiple lessons and points of view.
If you and your parenting partner are in disagreement about the values you want your children to learn, I urge you to take the time to have lots of conversation. There is value in diverse perspectives. It will help you think about the effects of your dictates more deeply and complexly.
My current husband and I have very different approaches to raising children. Opposite beliefs give us a chance to learn and grow. I used to be thrifty with my money to the point of stinginess, cheating myself out of exciting opportunities. It was years of watching his ease and enjoyment of money that allowed me to risk leaving my tenured teaching job to start my coaching business. It has been an enormous challenge, but being a solo entrepreneur has been so much fun and being able to have a positive impact on parents has been so satisfying. It has not always been comfortable being in conflict with my husband about money, but by being open to observing him, my life is much better for it. Likewise will your children benefit from learning from both of you, and if there are more than two “parents” in their lives, will benefit from getting multiple perspectives.
Practice what you preach!
Before we leave this topic altogether, I want you to go back to your list of proverbs one last time. If those items are what you want your children to absorb, what are you doing now to teach them? True, to a large extent children learn by watching how we are ourselves, but what we expect of them regularly also really sticks. If I had done everything for Julie or if I still checked up on whether she has done things today, she would never figure out how to do them herself. Like many college students currently on campuses across the country, she might be very academically prepared but not prepared to handle the independence of college life. That is not the case. My training is standing Julie is good stead. She is mature and self-sufficient, which is a result of living by the proverbs that mattered most to me, as her mother.
No matter what age your child is, he is learning about skills he’ll need as an adult: He is learning about relationships, about money, about work, about play and recreation, about gender roles. You have the awesome opportunity to craft those lessons deliberately through your training and expectations. You are cultivating a citizen of tomorrow--a wonderful and exciting job.
Do you feel you need help consistently connecting your values to your concrete parenting practices? That is a wonderful use of a parenting coach's weekly support. Ongoing coaching supports you in practicing what you preach, and I would be happy to work with you on that. Set up a time for a complimentary 20-minute conversation HERE.