Most families have a currency, a medium of exchange that over time becomes money in the “bank” of family ties. There are those who water ski, placing their barefoot toddlers in little skis as soon as they can stand. There are growing dynasties of actors in Hollywood, and families of politicians who crowd the halls of Congress and even the White House. Teachers and scholars come from previous generations of the same. Religious families nurture religious leaders, and football players grow Heisman Trophy winners. Even before the Middle Ages, children adopted the trade of their parents, their choices reflected in surnames like Smith and Cooper. This all occurs so naturally that we scarcely think about how or why it happens.
If we are excited about a profession our children will become excited too. We may or may not formally teach them, but they will learn nevertheless. It is how we keep our culture going. One generation grows and learns from the previous one. They pick up and assimilate the past and then pass it on in some form. Norms that are hidden or unexpressed may hold equal sway with those that are openly acknowledged, although it is easier for both parents and children if the standards are acknowledged. When a parent’s enthusiasm for a vocation, a hobby, or a healthy set of beliefs is generously communicated, it becomes a family playground, a realm where feelings, thoughts, ideas, and actions are freely shared. A child may or may not take up a parent’s passion, but it becomes a vibrant part of the self and a fertile field for family participation and growth.
Ideally, the outwardly acknowledged family standards match the underlying agenda. The norms are openly accepted and heartfelt. While they may be dictated originally by the parents, they evolve over time, responsive to individual differences and alterations by all family members, including the children. The parents are aware of how they really allocate their time and energy and what they truly believe in and care about. It may be basketball or classical music, politics or religion. It may be one’s chosen profession and the mindset that accompanies it.
The crucial factor for a family, however, is that the parent recognizes his or her life’s passion and shares it as openly as possible with the children. It is not sequestered into the work day, but rather made into sound bites that children can begin to understand. If possible, children can go to the workplace or even help with tasks that they can manage. Our daughter-in-law teaches opera at a university, and she brought her baby sons to the lessons. Will they be opera singers? We don’t know, but there is a good chance that they will appreciate music.
Bob and I were both psychologists, so it was not surprising that a psychological inclination was pervasive and, sometimes, uncommonly annoying to our children. We talked about feelings, motivations, and underlying causes until we were all blue in the face. At times we had to be kicked in the butt to remember that, as the good Dr. Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar. But that propensity was not apparent at first. It developed over time as a function of our own curiosity and soul-searching. We had each come from very different family orientations.
In my own family of origin, the norm, dictated by my mother’s passion, was academic success. She talked the talk, but she also walked the walk. She spent countless hours going over homework, prepping me for spelling bees, doing my Latin and geometry assignments, which I then memorized and parroted back the next day in school. The impression she left was indelible and has served me throughout my life. I seldom, if ever, doubt my academic ability; nor am I threatened even by those whose ability clearly exceeds my own. I became grounded in that realm by my mother’s unfailing presence, her quick wit, flawless memory, and enormous creativity. I met her there and came to know her in the only way that she could allow—through an intellectual bond that I treasure deeply. She talked about other topics—manners, grooming, morality (a mixed message to be sure), housekeeping, and cooking (a marginal lesson, at best). But she didn’t truly care about them, and I knew it, as children usually do.
Sadly, my father provided a lesson in how not to share one’s life’s work with one’s children. He was an attorney, and while he would often work on briefs at home, he would brush me away if I came near. I saw him in the courtroom only once that I can remember. His often-repeated message that women shouldn’t be lawyers sunk deep into my soul in ways that prevented me from choosing freely the profession I would follow. In truth, his conviction that barred me from his profession hurt me deeply. It took many years for me to realize that the work that I chose was a far better fit for me.
The currency of Bob’s family was missionary work, specifically the Czech mission. It became the center of their world and the reference point from which to measure any other endeavors. Even after they left Czechoslovakia, Bob’s parents were devoted to the mission and remained so for the rest of their lives. Bob and his siblings all served missions for the church in various parts of the world, some several times. However, dedication to missionary work meant that other important aspects of family life and raising children did not receive the attention they should have had. Schooling, for example, was given short shrift, to the detriment of all of the children. Still, Bob took something away from his upbringing that has served him well throughout his life—a deep and unshakable religious faith. He shared it with his father, and it was their deepest connection as father and son. Bob, in turn, has been able to share it generously with his own children. They know it to be at the core of who he is as a person.
Bob and I were each solidly grounded in the person of a parent—he with his father and I with my mother. From different perspectives we were able to build a foundation for our own children, a process not without conflict. As I have described, I was far too invested in my boys’ academic success. Bob was way too often the preacher. But as we grew and changed, we discovered that our deepest wish was to have a good family where members talked to one another and got along together. We wanted our children to understand their feelings, bad and good, and think positively about who they were. That became the driving force, the currency of our family.
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Last reviewed: 9 Apr 2014