My Parents’ Best Gifts Didn’t Come Wrapped

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

My parents didn’t spend too much time worrying about how my brother and I would turn out as adults. If we were happy doing whatever we were doing when we were kids, that was enough for them.

We were not, in other words, taught to think only of our future achievements. There was never a “Do this now, even if it makes you unhappy, because you will be a better person for it,” rationale.

My grandmother’s house, where my brother and I spent our earliest youth, was anything but childproof. To be honest, it wasn’t even adult proof.

There were rooms that nobody went into, because they were purely for show, roped off as if in a museum. True, the rope was invisible but it was still there. That was fine. The spaces to which I had access were all mine. My mother didn’t worry about neatness, although she did worry about cleanliness, and the rooms opened to everybody were safe places for everybody to be.

I was never spanked or hit. If we did something strictly against our family’s rules, we were yelled at, but not embarrassed, and rarely shamed in front of other people. We weren’t told that we were bad, although it was driven home that whatever we did we shouldn’t do again.

We were usually allowed to explain our side of things. I learned early on that if I could explain why I did something or why I wanted something, I had a much better chance of being successful. Language seemed to be the key. It got me attention: It permitted me to defend myself, and even to protect myself in advance.

I was put to sleep every night by playing word games with my parents. One or the other of them would tuck me in and recite a string of unrelated terms. If it was a good word, like flower, kitten or princess (it was 1958, what did you expect?) I would respond by shaking my head once. For words I didn’t like, garbage, bug, subway, I’d shake my head twice.

Certain words I simply liked the sound of, and I would repeat them over and over again. I like the sound of carousel, for example, and I like the sound of windowpane. The meaning was secondary to the texture of the language.
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I discovered it was better to ask what the consequences of doing something were, rather than doing it and finding out, which taught me to ask for help when I needed it.

Learning how to ask, politely and with what I now recognize as humility, was probably one of the best lessons I was ever taught: Even a kindergarten student who can let the teacher know that she doesn’t understand what’s expected of her before she’s asked to perform a task is miles ahead of the kid who can’t express her cluelessness except through failure.

Our classroom groups were mixed in terms of everyone’s age and abilities, it was a new educational strategy, I so learned how to lead the little kids as well as how to be subordinate to the big kids.

You had to figure out who was appropriate to choose as actual competition. You didn’t want to choose somebody to play with who couldn’t keep up with you, and you didn’t always want to be the sucker or the loser in the game where you couldn’t keep up with everybody else.

It’s not usually specific information for which a child searches, but a reward for her curiosity.

A child whose curiosity is rewarded will become enthusiastically engaged in the details of life, and will, as a result, become more interesting herself.

She’ll have observations to make and questions to ask. A child who likes herself will like other people and a child who likes other people will not be easily intimidated by them.

She’ll be aware of her environment, conscious of its limitation and its potential, and be allowed to grow up without the debilitating expectation of being forced to fulfill someone else’s dream.

Curiosity and a sense of competence are the best gifts parents can give a child. They are invaluable and they last a lifetime.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant

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