"Mommy, there's no such thing as "boyish" and "girly". When people use those words it's a stereotype."
When I asked her where she had learned that, she replied "big sissy told me".
"Big sissy" is a rather lucid and emancipated 9-year old indeed.
This reminded me that I've wanted to write a post about parental legacy for a while now.
You might know the famous writer's adage: "Write what you know". My parenting adage would be "Give what you have". (This adage applies to non-parents as well, in any situation where you have an opportunity to inspire or to teach something.)
A friend of mine who's a musician taught his son to play drum solos before the age of 5. It was impressive. For a moment, after witnessing it, I wondered if I had not missed something with my own kids: they couldn't do a solo (of any instrument) to save their lives!
But I quickly realized that the beauty of parenting (and teaching and mentoring in general) is that you get to transmit what you have, nothing less, nothing more. Drum solos I did not have, and so I did not transmit. But I had other things, and so do you.
Since "Nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything changes", what you have to give is often what you've received.
My mom showed me to love and respect nature, to enjoy good food (and wine) and good music, to be a strong woman, and the importance of gatherings and celebrations. She approaches life with a no-nonsense, go-getter attitude. From observing her I also acquired assertiveness and enthusiasm.
My dad showed me to respect myself and others, to have a healthy mind in a healthy body, and the importance of discipline and order (I'm afraid I did not pass on the latter). He approached life with an unequaled sensibility. From observing him I also learned to use humor and to find my calm.
Both parents transmitted their love of travel, adventure and the outdoors as well as their insatiable intellectual and cultural curiosity.
With mom I learned that spiders, garter snakes and bloody wounds are nothing to get panicked about. It sure came in handy in many situations, including life guarding interventions where I unexplainably always ended up with the hemorrhage cases. In university I took an undergrad course on Pain, during which the teacher saw fit to show us a rather graphic documentary on trepanation and similar procedures. Some students decided to just leave. Many put their hands on their eyes and/or exclaimed onomatopoeia of disgust. One or two fainted. I watched intently and whispered "Wow, cool" to the closest fellow student.
With dad I learned that you should not say "I'm sorry" for simply being yourself. In general he had a very compassionate approach to introspection and interpersonal relationships. When I was 9 or 10, I once tied a (male) friend to a tree with my skipping rope, rather loosely I should specify, and "ordered" him (in a humoristic voice or so I thought) to stay there while I went to have lunch. When I came out half an hour later, to my greatest surprise... he was still tied to the tree!!! That night, at bedtime, my dad said "J, there's something I'd like to talk to you about." I remember we sat together on the backyard bench, in the dark African night, and I remember my incredulous reaction when he said to me "You know, I think J loves you. And you know, when a boy loves a girl, sometimes he will let her do anything to him. Including tie him to a tree. You don't have to love J back. But you ought to treat him with kindness and respect."
I've never forgotten that conversation. And I've never tied a guy up again. Er... well... not with a skipping rope to a tree, anyways. ;-)
When I became pregnant with my first child I asked myself the following question: "what is the legacy I want to give this child? What is it that my parents gave to me that I want to transmit to the next generation, and is there anything I would like to add to it?"
In the rush of everyday life I try to remember those bases and to come back to them regularly. Apart from what I've listed above, there is something else I have tried to teach my kids, and it is that the birds and the bees are a topic just like any other. I have always thought that an intelligent question deserves and intelligent answer, and I try to live by that. With the help of some wonderful books that abound nowadays, we have touched upon this tricky subject as comfortably as any other, and we call things by their names. It did have unexpected consequences once, when my then 2-year old suddenly decided to scream the detailed names of her private parts from the top of a slide at the playground, but other than that it's only been positive.
What legacy did you get from your parents, and what do you give back, whether it's to your kids or to other individuals who were lucky enough to cross paths with you?
Stay tuned! In the next post you will learn what it's like to grow up with a mathematician for a parent!