I was the baby in my family, so over the years many people remark that I was probably spoiled. Well, Mom and Dad had nine of us in thirteen years (no twins), so either they were too tired or just didn’t care enough to spoil me. Or maybe, they actually learned a thing or two about rearing children by the time they got to me.
Benign neglect would be a more apt description of my childhood. Consider, for example, some of the things most of us take for granted about our childhood. Like riding a bike: I was in third grade and still couldn’t bicycle. It was my best friend’s mother, tired of watching her son try to teach me, who came out one day and in five minutes did it herself.
I grew up in New England, where, in the winter, people do things like ice skating. I recall trying to teach myself once or twice, but to this day I cannot skate.
And ski. In the seventh grade, I joined the ski club, excited to go on my very first ski trip.
The next day we had our first big snowfall, and as I walked home from school, it really piled up. Nice fresh, powdery stuff – perfect for skiing. This is exactly what my brother Philip was doing on the hill in the back of our house.
My mother was in the kitchen. “Kiernan,” she said, as I wandered in, “why don’t you go join your brother?”
“Mom, I don’t know how to ski.”
“Oh, I’m sure Philip can teach you how.”
“But, Mom, I don’t even have any skis.”
“Peter has some up in the attic. Just use those.”
Now Peter, who’s eight years older, would have been 21 at the time, and outweighed me by about 65 pounds. Also, he was never the kind to do anything casually – he’s the obsessive, competitive type. Peter regularly skied down Black Diamond slopes.
I thought him a madman, and admired him all the more for it, but about skis and skiing I was entirely ignorant. Peter’s skis and I trudged our way out back.
I waited impatiently at the top of the hill as Philip walked back up. I called down to him, “Mom says you can teach me how to ski. What do I do?”
Now, understand I bear no animosity toward Philip whatsoever. But what do you think he said? “It’s easy. You just go.”
So I went. Stupid me.
WHOOP! About 15 feet and 1.8 seconds later, I flipped over and broke my leg. That’s the last time I ever put skis on.
Later, when it came time to give me some direction in life, as well as helping me understand the commitments I would need to make for whatever path I chose, my parents stuck to the benign neglect approach.
I heard this phrase from Dr. Patrick Fagan, Director of the Center for Research on Marriage and Religion. If there were an authority on large Irish, Catholic families, he would be it. He said, in his lovely brogue, “If you have a good marriage, you can almost benignly neglect your children, and they’ll still turn out all right.” I swore he was talking about my parents.
I did turn out all right, I think. I was wild for a long time, but not quite as wild as Peter, and he turned out all right, too. There’s only one thing I would want my parents to do differently, if I could.
What would you have changed about your parents, if you could?
Copyright 2016 Kiernan O’Connor