Columns 2008

Parenting by guilt and fear…not an altogether bad thing

I’m guessing that when I was in high school there were educational institutions where senior pranks occurred. After all, the tradition had to start somewhere. But I can tell you for sure where it stopped. It stopped at the front door of Holy Spirit High School. It was stopped there by the mere presence of the sisters and priests who ran the school. It was stopped there by the mere thought of parental reaction to anything that would damage the school. It was stopped there, ultimately, by sheer fear.

My parents had no problem using fear as a tool in raising their children. Neither did most of the parents in our neighborhood.  For us kids, it was a toss up what scared us most – God, his earthly staff, or our mothers and fathers. Bottom line was that no matter how you looked at it, you had someone nearby who scared you straight.

I’m not trying to rewrite history here. There were plenty of troubled kids in my neighborhood. (That’s what they were called in the quaint old fifties – troubled kids.) One of my sister’s classmates is currently serving a life sentence for killing people and stuffing their bodies in the trunks of their cars. Now there’s a troubled kid.  But even he stopped short of messing around with the school or church. Even a killer knew where the limit was when it came to crossing God and family.

Maybe we had a different attitude towards our schools because they only existed due to the dogged determination of the congregations that surrounded them.  Our parents wanted us to have a Catholic school education because they saw that as the ticket to college and a better life. So even though the schools were small and gym class consisted of walks on the Boardwalk because the gym was also the cafeteria and chapel for both the high school and grade school, it was considered a privilege to be able to attend. Our parents scrimped and saved to make the tuition for us.  Our parishes held bingo games, carnivals, and sold every overpriced candy bar known to man to keep the school open and able to accept kids whose parents couldn’t quite make the full tuition.

When your parents have that much of a stake in the school, you can bet your bottom dollar that they are going to make sure you appreciate it and treat it respectfully.  My dad and mom ran a store that was open six and a half days a week in order to make that tuition.  My brother and sister and I knew that.  Mom made sure her kids did. Because along with fear, she believed that guilt was the gift that keeps on giving.

In high school I was still too dependent on my parents to risk really making them mad. Guilt and fear still dominated any thoughts I might have had about going outside of their rules.  Even after I was in college and engaged in full blown counter culture protests, my mother’s face was always there in my mind’s eye. It took at least half the joy and triumph away from whatever act of civil disobedience I was engaged in.

My parents were much more concerned that I respect them and the rules they set than about being my friend. Friends were something they already had. Children were a task they’d been handed by God. My mother firmly believed her job was to form us into responsible adults by whatever means necessary so society would never find us a burden. This was how she defined loving us – making us the best adults we could be.

My mother died seven years ago. I am now a woman past her middle years, stumbling towards who knows what aging future. But no matter how long she’s been gone or how old I get, when my conscience rears up and kicks me in the butt for something I’m doing, it has my mother’s face. 

You might think that was a bad thing. But it’s not. She loved me enough risk my fearing her if that’s what it took to raise a responsible, respectful adult.  It’s not a risk many modern parents seem willing to take. I think we, as a society, suffer because of that.