Parents and Education and Self Esteem, Oh My

Mamacita says: Oh please, society, let us learn from the past, just a little bit?

“Francie thought it was the most beautiful church in Brooklyn. It was made of old gray stone and had twin spires that rose cleanly into the sky, high above the tallest tenements. Inside, the high vaulted ceilings, narrow deepset stained-glass windows and elaborately carved altars made it a miniature cathedral.”

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1943) p 390.

This is Most Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn. Betty Smith used it in her novel and had her heroine, Francie Nolan, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, love to look at it, and love knowing that her grandfather had carved the altar as part of his tithe. He had no money, so he donated his considerable talent. Francie’s grandfather was a horrible abusive man, but he honored his commitment to God.

Francie’s grandmother and all but two of her daughters were illiterate, but revered literacy. The grandmother did not at first understand that education was free to all in America, so her two older daughters didn’t go to school. Her two younger daughters, however, were sent to school and kept there as long as possible, until family circumstances required them to go to work. Such was life, back then. Formal education was honored above most other things, but it was also one of the first things to go when times got harder.

Two of my favorite books are A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, and Everything But Money, by Sam Levinson. They are a great deal alike in that they are both about immigrant parents, the value of education, the great love of learning that is the source of pride to secure parents, and the sacrifices that good parents make so their children can have better lives.

Our immigrant ancestors came to this country pretty much knowing that there was no chance of them, personally, fulfilling very many of their own dreams and aspirations: all of their hopes and dreams and aspirations were for their children.

Our immigrant ancestors didn’t really move to this country for themselves; they were adults, and the time was long past for them to develop and use their talents in any official or professional capacity, especially in a new land that had customs and language that were both unfamiliar in every possible way . There were exceptions, of course, but the truth is, most of our immigrant ancestors put their own hopes and dreams and ambitions on the back burner so they could concentrate on the hopes and dreams and ambitions they held for their children.

Tenement houses were filled with mothers, grandmothers, maiden aunts, and shirttail relatives, singing in the kitchen that their children might some day sing in Carnegie Hall. Factories and stores were filled with fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and more shirttail relatives, singing at the assembly lines and behind the counters and down in the mines that their children might some day sing in synogogues and cathedrals. People with artistic talent displayed their art with beautiful pies, cakes that were a picture, carved altars in the church, rich embroidery on simple pillow slips, and tailoring that was a work of art. Ancestors who, today, might have organized businesses and found success on the stock market used their skills to make something out of nothing, that their children might have something to make something more out of when it was their turn.

Their children were being educated, and that was enough. Our ancestors looked ahead to the future; they had no time or energy or money to do much for themselves. It was all for the children, and for the future.

Parents too weary from sweatshops and never-ending domestic drudgery didn’t have much time to “play” any more. These parents loved their children far too much to stop and indulge themselves; every nap meant pennies not earned. Parents were there for discipline and meals and clothing and love that was demonstrated by the laying aside of their own desires to focus entirely on the future of their children. NOW was never as important as TOMORROW. This forced their children to be inventive, creative, organized, resourceful, problem-solving, appreciative of things that today’s kids throw away, and hungry enough every night to eat whatever Mother put on the table. A child who asked for something else would have been laughed at.

Adults gave each other blessings that relied on the behavior of the children. “May your children bring you happiness,” “May your children make you proud,” “May your find joy in your children,” etc. Children who misbehaved in school or in public or right there in the house brought shame to their parents and disgrace to the family name. His siblings recoiled from a misbehaving kid, and his mother cried. Families used “shame” to help shape a character that knew what it meant and therefore stayed as far away from it as possible.

Adults have changed. A large percentage of adults put their own desires and urges and feelings and wants before the needs and wants of their children. Kids today don’t care if they bring shame and disgrace to their parents. It’s never their fault anyway; it’s that heartless teacher who doesn’t understand Buddy or Muffy and doesn’t appreciate the cute way he stomps his foot when he’s mad or the adorable way she twists and chews her hair when she’s deciding who to invite to her latest party. Adults get home from work far earlier (usually) than their great-grandparents did, yet adults today are too tired to go to PTA meetings or choir concerts or spelling bees, things their ancestors viewed with such honor (they were not available to peasants in the old country) that they wept and trembled with emotion as they bathed and put on their best clothing in order to show respect to the school and the teacher, and to watch their children represent the family in a scholarly event. (Surprisingly, many adults are not too tired to go to an athletic event.)

Many immigrants came here in the first place so their children could take advantage of the free public education. Illiterate parents pointed with pride to the row of schoolbooks on the kitchen shelf, and boasted that their children could READ THEM! They weren’t worried about new ideas; they encouraged the learning of new things. They did not worry that the new ideas would usurp the old ideas; they just honored all learning and assumed their kids were wise enough to blend the old and the new together and come out with a new “new.” Sam Levinson writes most eloquently and beautifully about his father’s pride in his many sons’ books and accomplishments, even those the old man knew nothing about and knew he never would.

A poorly behaved child brought great sadness and shame to his parents; usually, the sight of his father and mother’s grief, brought on by the child’s poor choices, was enough to straighten the kid out. If not, our ancestors weren’t afraid to use other means to demonstrate to a child that certain behaviors brought certain consequences. Shockingly, this didn’t result in a child quivering with sadness and with no ego or esteem left in his system; it usually resulted in a child who knew better than to try THAT again, by golly.

Modern parents are often so worried about causing their children emotional pain that they ignore or neglect all kinds of opportunities to demonstrate to their children that nice people are a lot more welcome in society than people who feel they have a right to do their own thing regardless of where they are or what the mean old rules might be. A child who is taught in no uncertain terms that one sits quietly at the table, be it at home or elsewhere, eats whatever might be on his plate – or at least tries to eat it – without complaining, and who knows, because he was taught, that one does not get up from the table without permission, and that “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” really are magic words. . . well, let us be euphemistic, even though I loathe euphemisms, and just say that nice people of all ages are more welcome and appreciated than are people whose manners and whose tolerance for poor manners need some adjustment. Think of the mall. Think of restaurants.

Our ancestors would be appalled at some of the attitudes and behaviors of their descendants. I know I am.

In many households, the kids are running the show, and the parental helicopter is hovering even over universities and workplaces, lest some “right” is denied and a kid’s self esteem is dealt a blow, deserved or not.

Self esteem.  You really don’t want to get me started.

P.S. Self esteem must be EARNED. It’s not a given. Nobody has a RIGHT to it. We’re not born with it. It can’t be presented as a gift. And kids know the difference even if some adults don’t. We have to deserve it. Otherwise, it’s all just a big joke, and the joke’s on the adults.

P.P.S.  I guess I got started on it.


Parents and Education and Self Esteem, Oh My — 4 Comments

  1. I’m leaving my usual stalkitude to say something I’ve wanted to say for a long time:

    Jane, this is literature. You are one of the best writers on the planet, and if you don’t write that book soon, the world will be less for it. Please keep on. Wow.

    One more thing: I wish my children had a teacher like you. Again, wow.

  2. I’m leaving my usual stalkitude to say something I’ve wanted to say for a long time:

    Jane, this is literature. You are one of the best writers on the planet, and if you don’t write that book soon, the world will be less for it. Please keep on. Wow.

    One more thing: I wish my children had a teacher like you. Again, wow.

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