My Favorite Toy

My parents likely did not intend to raise seven children, much less start off their parenting adventures with twin boys. They certainly aren’t authorities on parenting generally, family dynamics, or child development, and yet they got some interesting things right, at least for me.

First, though they wouldn’t put it this way, they believed a child’s most important toy and her strongest tool is her imagination. Growing up, we didn’t have a TV until I was well into my school age years. When some neighbors gave us an old rabbit-eared black and white, we not allowed to watch TV on school nights.

We did, however, have a big back yard that bordered on woods, fields and pastures (and best of all, a swamp and a stream). There were a few neighbors, but none with children my age. When it was dinner time, Mom would ring us home with a cowbell that could be heard for miles.

Mom had ways of reinforcing this notion that we were supposed to entertain ourselves, mostly by offering us long, onerous lists of chores (in addition to the regular batch) if we so much as looked like we were bored or mopey. Then too, with that many mouths to feed, there simply wasn’t money for a lot of toys or games.

Second, Stu and Colleen occasionally packed us up (five of us kids, anyway) and drove us from central Pennsylvania to points west. Once we spent a summer in Ft. Collins, Colorado. I took my first horseback riding lessons there. Three times, we spent summers in San Diego. I loathed the time spent in San Diego, but adored the process of getting there and back. We camped in the Grand Tetons, we found a soda machine at the Holiday Inn in Lincoln, Nebraska. that you didn’t have to put money in to get all the drinks you wanted (though Mom would only let us get one each).

We picnicked in the Painted Dessert, and our brakes went out in the Salt River Canyon. We caught wind of the Chicago stockyards miles before we passed them. Somewhere in the Rockies, Dad pulled over so we could have a snowball fight in June. To an eight-year-old, these were Big Adventures. Interstates 80 and 70 (not yet completed), were the most fascinating screen savers ever. Like nothing else could, travel sent the message: There’s a big world out there waiting for you to explore it. Start packing, kiddo.

The lessons were endless: THIS is what the pioneers traversed by covered wagon. THESE are the mountain passes that still close most winters. THIS is how hot Death Valley gets—and back in the day, those mule skinners didn’t have sunscreen. Wow.

I don’t think my parents had any idea that their approach to raising children was going to result in a batch of people with rambunctious imaginations. My mom probably shooed us outside for most of the summer to keep from losing her mind. My dad hauled us the length of the country so he could hang out with other scientists whose work interested him. They were trying to fit resources and requirements together, the best they could figure out that ever-changing puzzle.

I still love a good cross country road trip. I still have no TV. Beloved Offspring was raised without TV, and she’s seen a lot of the country from the front seat of a pick up truck. What’s something—some one thing—your parents got right, even if they got it right by accident?

To one commenter, I’ll give a DVD of the Timothy Dalton/Zelah Clark version of Jane Eyre.

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12 comments on “My Favorite Toy

  1. Hi Grace , love the stories of your childhood :). It’s so sweet. Hmmm what my parent got it right by accident maybe Is my hobby of reading tons of books:D. The start went like this when two parents were too busy in their shops and having no one to help to look after their 5 year old daughter , they realized the best way to preoccupied their kid mind is by showing her lovely pictures and she could stared at those pictures and say Ooh agh and kept quiet for whole 2 hours. Then , the father off to buy some lovely fairytale books with beautiful pictures. There, my love affair with the books . It was start with those lovely picture books, then fairytale, then classic stories and last but not the least the wobdeful romance novels 🙂

    • I spent entire summers reading–in bed, in trees, in hammocks, anywhere. Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Bobsey Twins, then biographies, classics… My parents approved of reading until Mom saw that I’d gotten hold of my older sister’s copy of “The Decameron.” Oops.

  2. Now we had a TV but I grew up when there weren’t cartoons or kids shows on all the time. And we didn’t have cable until I was in high school so we had the big three channels and PBS. It blows my mind how many kids I know that don’t watch PBS childrens programming! It was amazing stuff and I still will say I need a “loaf of bread, a jar of milk, and a stick of butter” from the store (anyone get my crazy reference? Probably not.)

    And we spent a lot of time outside, but my mother was known to kick us out of the house and lock the door behind us when we were on her last nerve and making it impossible to get things done.

    On to the topic: my parents did our education right. Purposefully. It was never said “if you go to college.” It was always “whenyou go to college.” My sister and I were completely original by graduating from high school and walking straight onto the university campus. My brother did flounder around for a bit but he should finish his degree soon and is talking about getting a graduate degree (I’d get a Ph.D if the Air Force would pay for it).

    • My dad was a college professor, and one of the perks of his position was that any faculty dependent could attend and get a 75 percent tuition discount. Guess where six of the seven children went? Like you, the situation was never IF, it was always WHEN, and because I lived in a college town, I could and did start college the summer after eleventh grade. Higher education is one of my happy places, and I owe my parents for that too.

  3. Being a child raised by a single parent I have to say my mom done a lot of things right. She worked hard at a full time job, took care of a house and raised three daughters. I have to say what has stuck with me the most is how she always put our needs above that of her own. No matter what, food, clothing or a social life. I was the youngest of three girls. My mom did not even date until I was married. It was like her life was ours and she made it her priority. I she people today that have children and leave them to others, grandparents, etc. and think how sad that is. Even though I lost my mom to cancer 4 years ago she will always be my biggest love, my hero, and my heart. And I’m not sure what my favorite toy would have been, maybe my swing set, maybe the tree in the neighbors yard or playing in the creek…not sure but seems like I did a lot of playing with them all.

    • It occurred to that that maybe I was as good a single parents as I would have been a married parent, because of just that focus you mention. Had I been married, the child would have the benefit of two parental perspectives, some check and balance, some tag-teaming. But I would also have had to deal with the care and feeding of a marriage. I dated some when Beloved Offspring was young, but put it aside as she reached adolescence. Nothing I’ve done, written, or aspired to counts for a bean compared to the raising of that child. I could not be more proud of her.

  4. I am one of nine siblings, raised in the Philadelphia suburbs during the 50’s and 60’s. We were taught “God and Country” and the importance of family. We had our own chores, but learned early that many hands made the labor light. We did many “do it yourself” projects…together. Everyone could and did help from the oldest to the youngest. We all shared in the success of the project. The most important thing that they taught us was family is central to all else. With the exception of death, family would always be there and could always be counted on.

    • Betty, both my mom, and to a greater extent my godmother, who lived on a farm, understood that if children are given age-appropriate ways to make meaningful contributions, they learn responsibility from the inside out, not as a punishment, but as one of the privileges of being a family member.

      My mom was raised in suburban Philly, around Paoli and Wayne. When I sent to see Dressage at Devon, I checked out her old neighborhood, and lo, it’s much the same.

  5. Freedom, Grace, I think the best gift my Mother gave me was the freedom to do pretty much as I pleased. Don’t get me wrong there was curfew and chores around the house, babysitting the younger siblings all the normal ’50 responsibilites. But I could read as much as I wanted, explore our (Safe) area and communicate whenever I wanted. I lost my mother at 14 and never will get over that but the joy of my life with her and our family was unforgetable and yes, I did think it important to bring up my own family with those values. As for favorite Toy…Guess it Grace..Look at my home page…Dishes! I love Dishes, pots and pans, bowls, bottles, guilts, doilies and BOOKS! lol

    • As a child, I took very much for granted that I was safe when I went rambling around the woods, when I went to the neighbors’ houses, when I was occasionally home alone. It’s not like that any more for a lot of children, and that’s a darned shame.

  6. So very right: They raised us on an acre with dogs, cats, horses, and whatever other critter wandered in. Ok, the cats were my fault. But simply being a kid amongst furry friends, no lack of dirt, rocks and books was good.