14 Lessons Our Parents & Other Wise Elders Preached

August 14, 2015 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, many of us had parents who taught us lessons about character, values, life, love and emotions. Although you might remember those lessons as incredibly annoying and often bordering on nagging, now you’re old and wise enough to know the wisdom of some of their directives. And just maybe you’re even passing them on to your children and grandchildren. Here are 14 that we remember well.

  1. Sit or stand up straight and tall, and more. “Margaret, you’re slouching. Do you want bad posture and to be bent over like a little old lady?” “Barbara, don’t put your elbows on the table. Pull your shoulders back when you walk; pretend you have the stature of a well-trained ballet dancer.” Suddenly, as we begin to shrink quarter inch by quarter inch, we need all the height we can get. Also, when someone stands tall, it connotes confidence. And we are ready to concede, this was good advice, Mom.
  2. Never chew with your mouth open, be sure to put your napkin in your lap and, if we were young today, they’d tell us to turn off our cell phones. You’re at a business lunch and the impression you make could mean the difference between no sale and a huge one. Show the other person that you have good manners and some class, a message our mothers drilled into us. So many people talk with food in their mouths and chew with them wide open while their napkins sit limp on the left of their plate, not on their lap. If you practice what your parents preached, your children will pick up on it and hopefully when they have an important dinner meeting, won’t eat with their mouths open. And while we’re at it, we’re now preaching to our kids to turn off their cell phones, stop checking them during a meal, avoid texting, leaving on their phones so we hear a constant ding-ding, and best of all, have a conversation face-to-face with us.
  3. Be on time. This is one Barbara learned more from her late mother-in-law and late father. Both were incredibly punctual, and in fact, if you were on time for her dad you were late. It drove Barbara crazy growing up but when she showed up late at her in-laws’ apartment one time, her mother-in-law said nicely, “People who are late think they’re more important.” It stuck, and Barbara tries to be on time. Or at least, she’ll let other people know if she’s running late. Margaret has had the opposite experience. Her late husband, Nolan, and his family were always early. Many times she would invite them over for a holiday dinner and they’d arrive so early that she’d even be in the shower. It was their problem to entertain themselves while she dressed.
  4. Remember to say thank you in a thoughtful note or call. Margaret’s aunt sent the same $10 check every year for her birthday. And each year her mother would remind her: “Don’t forget to write a thank you note.” How annoying to have to take time from something so much more important—a favorite TV show or gabbing on the phone with a friend–to write that note or make a call, but we always did. And we made sure it was thoughtful and specific. No vague thank you for the gift but thank you for the shirt that I’ll love wearing to my next boy/girl party, or thank you for the t’choke that will sit on my desk in college and remind me of home. We found ourselves teaching that same lesson to our kids when they were old enough to write their own notes or make the thank you call. Many people today find it even more special than ever to receive a handwritten note through snail mail or a personal phone call. An email thank you is not preferred but preferable to no thank you. A text doesn’t cut it ever. Practice here makes perfect. Write enough TU notes or make the phone calls, and it will become an automatic courtesy every time someone goes out of their way to give you a gift, do a special favor and invite you to their home or out for a meal.
  5. Never give up your work or your identity completely. Once Barbara was ready for the work force, she remembers her Mom distinctly saying always do some kind of paid work. She never worked full time after Barbara was born, and Barbara remembers her working part time only sporadically and missing it. She wanted her daughter to have a career, separate from her husband’s, and she was so right. Barbara now says. “My work has provided great joy, some angst, but a paycheck, self-esteem, a door into interesting people’s lives and careers, and a way to keep me learning and engaged as I age, and a focus during my long, protracted divorce.” Thanks, Mom. Margaret’s mother thought after her daughter got engaged, she’d marry and quit work. It was her father who said after she finished her undergraduate schooling, “So, what type of job are you getting?” And she did and has worked ever since.
  6. Think it but why would you say it? Not every thought in your head has to go out your mouth—and out to someone else. It’s not a matter of being dishonest or thinking the other person should be as thick skinned as a rhinoceros. It’s about being kind and considerate. As people age, many begin to lose a filter and say any thought that pops into their brain: “Barbara, have you talked to your doctor recently about your weight?” Or, “Do you need a comb?” Margaret, “Why are you wearing that ugly shirt with those pants? And, you need to do something with your hair.” Honesty isn’t the best policy in these cases unless one party asks the other party for their opinion and then it’s not always prudent to tell the whole truth at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings.
  7. Be inclusive rather than exclusive. Margaret’s mother taught us this lesson; thank you Bea. Always try to add another place setting to the table or order extra invitations for that bigger event, the cost won’t set you back that much. If you think you’re leaving someone out, don’t. You’ll rarely regret including another rather than cutting your guest list. And won’t you be glad when you’re not the one being axed especially if you’re single and invitations aren’t that forthcoming? Most tables can be expanded, and recipes doubled.
  8. Never take the better invitation but stick with the first one. Yes, you’d love to go to the White House instead of around the corner to your friend’s house for a barbecue, but once you accept an invitation to whatever, it’s written in stone. How would you feel if someone did that to you? Pretty unimportant, right? There are exceptions and if they arise, be honest with the first person who extended the invitation and say, “Would it be OK this time to switch our plans?” You don’t get to do this too often—or get many invites to the White House–so use that card very wisely.
  9. Remember people’s birthdays, anniversaries and special events. Barbara learned to keep a little book with all those dates written down. People seemed amazed, “How do you keep all these dates in your head?” they would ask. She doesn’t, but it doesn’t take much effort to check the book occasionally, buy a card or write an email, and these days Facebook will remember such events for you. Also, plug important dates into your iPhone calendar and you’ll get reminders. Outlook does this as well. However, when push comes to shove, a card in the mail or a call is so much more personal and nicer than an email. And with deaths showing up more in your life with aging, celebrating happy events is a delightful interlude.
  10. Never go empty handed if a guest in someone’s home. Dinner party invites may be fewer these days as more folks opt to eat out rather than entertain at home, but when an invite comes along whether for dinner or as a house guest, always ask what food item or wine you can bring, and if the host says absolutely nothing, get creative. Make your favorite brownies or lemon bars they can serve or tuck into the freezer, bring bagels and some great jam for their next breakfast, head to your favorite book store and buy a book you recently read and loved or would love to read, pluck a nice bottle of wine from your cellar to share, or go out into your garden and gather up some of your produce or flowers and put them in a pretty container or vase with a lovely handwritten note. What you bring doesn’t have to be expensive, but the gesture shows appreciation and time. If you forget to bring something, you can always send or drop off a gift after as a thank you.
  11. Call home at least once a week. Your folks checked up on you constantly when you were growing up, and it probably was extremely annoying. Now, as your parents age, if you are lucky, or other relatives are getting up there in years, check in regularly, and check in on your kids, too, by phone or email or even text, probably the easiest way to reach them. Two of Margaret’s kids live out of town and they know the drill. Call home every Sunday. Since both travel, it doesn’t always work out to call so they at least try to stay in touch by email.
  12. Give back to your community. Margaret’s parents were always philanthropic and talked about the importance of giving back or helping others. Barbara’s folks taught her the same; after college it was her time to send in a check annually to her college, and she passed that lesson on to both daughters, who follow it religiously. Giving money isn’t the only way to show generosity. Being generous with your time and knowledge is just as important and worth while. Volunteer at a soup kitchen during a holiday, tutor kids in your spare time, do a baking session with teens at a boys and girls club, or support any school you attended and loved. Giving to others actually makes you feel terrific and causes good chemicals to be released in the brain.
  13. You are responsible for your own life. If you have a problem, kick and scream if that makes you feel better, but deal with it and/or fix it. This will prevent you from sitting in the corner feeling sorry for yourself and zapping all the energy you could use to solve the problem. It’s empowering to figure out the means to take care of an issue on your own rather than think you’re a victim. Not! And don’t be afraid to ask for help—whether a professional, a parent, a child, or close relative or friend, a lesson both of us learned from our folks, who were, however, much less inclined to share problems. And we also learned this from each other.
  14. Learn to communicate. People cannot read your mind. If something is bothering you about another person, talk about it with them, otherwise the issue will fester, another lesson learned from our parents and from Barbara’s “special friend.” (More about this term and other monikers in next week’s column). If you use “I” messages and talk about how you feel rather than attack or criticize, the other person will be more inclined to listen—lesson No. 1 in marriage and relationship counseling. It keeps the lines of communication open. Barbara and Margaret have been writing together for 30 plus years and have an understanding that if something bothers one or the other, they air their grievances openly, honestly, and kindly without hurting the other’s feelings. And they use humor. “That paragraph needs work,” one will say, laughing, which is code for send back for a rewrite. And that’s why we’re still a team!

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