I was having breakfast recently with the appealing young woman who used to be my little girl, when she suddenly looked across the table and, out of the blue, began reminiscing about a game we used to play when she was in the first grade. "Remember how you'd put the cereal boxes in a circle on the kitchen floor,” she asked, “and then spin me around until I stopped in front of one of the boxes, and that would be the one I had for breakfast?" I smiled, flashing back to the hurried mornings when that game had been the only way I could make sure she didn't spend a precious five minutes pondering her cereal choices and wind up missing the school bus.
So many conversations with my children today start out with the words: “Do you remember...?” The question always delights me. It feels as if they are extracting some happy detail from their childhood and presenting it to me like a gift. After all, kids are the repositories of our parental pasts, and when their memories are good ones, we can feel gratified.
Our children often remember the little things that we, their parents, may not. So, just as I will never forget sitting on my father’s lap raptly listening to his nightly stories about a made-up, Orphan Annie-like character he called “Garbage Can Mary,’’ my grown-up daughter remembers how I pretended my fingers were “tickle bugs” and used them to tickle her awake in the morning. And just as I can still picture my mother hand-delivering trays of tea and toast to me whenever I was sick in bed, my son fondly recalls how I sat on the floor of his room and read him a book—about a mighty steam shovel, or a courageous dog, or a legendary first baseman—every night of his young life.
Of course, our kids are bound to remember the times when they felt we were mean or unfair. I have many such misdemeanors on my rap sheet, and have found that the best way to deal with them is to either express regret, if I think they have a good a case against me, or explain myself, if I think they don’t have all the facts.
So, when my daughter, at the age of 18, accused me of refusing to get her the American Girl doll she claims she begged me for when she was 10, I speculated that I probably hadn’t taken her request seriously since, as I remember it, she never liked dolls and wouldn’t play with the little girl next door who did. While I ultimately did say I was sorry she’d been disappointed about the doll, I immediately went on to enumerate some of the half million other things she’d asked for that (often against my better judgment) I had bought her.
Despite my daughter’s complaint, I’m convinced that it’s not the American Girl dolls and the X-boxes that count most with our kids, but the daily time and attention, comfort and fun we give them as regularly as we give them dinner. At least these are the things that seem to spring into their minds most often— treasured memories that fit into their pockets and that they carry out into the world, where they become signposts for their own behavior as parents.
I wish I’d grasped this essential truth earlier on. I might not have fretted so much about not getting them every little thing their hearts desired. Maybe I didn’t listen hard enough to my own childhood memories. If I had, I would have realized that I knew all I needed to know about which ones matter the most. I only hope I’ve passed that lesson along, intact, to my children.
Bette-Jane Raphael is a journalist and a writing coach at The City College of New York. She has two children.