WHAT CHILD IS THIS?
It is a pleasant exercise to look back on your own childhood, extracting the memories that are pleasing to remember. Recently I have been looking back at my young self in a more objective way, as if I were not seeing myself, but some other child. This puts a new perspective on things.
I grew up in the 1920's and 30's when child psychology had not advanced to its present level and my mother had grown up in the late Victorian era. A vignette begins to take shape in my mind. There is a scene of my mother sitting at her dressing table. I am very small and I am standing near her and I say something to her that I do not recall, but I have never forgotten her words. She said, "You are adorable".
That I have remembered and treasured those words all these years tells me how desperately the human psyche craves validation and nurturing.
I grew up in an atmosphere of love--one does not need words to transmit love. It is in every look, and every touch, but there is a very great need for vocal reinforcement while a child is in the process of growing and becoming.
This child I see was timid and unsure, overly eager to please, and afraid of displeasing. My parents had a strange notion that to bestow compliments on a child might give a false sense of importance, or cause the child to become arrogant or egotistical. Therefore, as we grew older compliments were given indirectly—my parents would praise my brothers and sister to me, and they would praise me to them. (I have often discussed this phenomenon with my sister and it is true, but we were unaware of it then) The result was that we grew up thinking our siblings were the more loved and favored.
I had no idea what image I projected to the people around me. The mirror could not speak, and without verbal feedback I did not know if I were pretty or not. It would have helped if someone had pointed out my good qualities--the color of my eyes, or hair, or had said "you are adorable" to me when I was old enough to know what it meant.
One day I overheard my friend Evelyn's mother say that she thought I had a nice personality. When I got home I asked my mother what 'personality' was. My mother's answer raised my self- esteem several notches. How I longed to know myself! How I needed this validation! I fed off this meager compliment all my life.
The education of a child desperately needs to include assertiveness training. I certainly could have benefited from it. Any idea or opinion, however immature or misguided deserves consideration, and this begins at home. This is where critical thinking and debate can become learning tools, and where a child begins to see that being wrong is not fatal, and that is it OK to have a differing opinion. In my era, a child was chastised for speaking out. (it was called ‘talking back’ )
Long after I was grown, in talks with my mother (she was a wonderfully wise woman) I was told that there was concern that I did not have a musical ear because I did not sing at an early age. The truth was that my musical ear was so sensitive that music was almost painful for me to hear. A steel guitar and close harmony could make me weep. It was in the 3rd or 4th grades that I learned that I was a natural 'alto'. Under the tutelage of a marvelous Italian teacher named Mrs. Sarconi, I finally found my voice. She also informed my mother that I was 'plodding along' scholastically. That stuck with me too.
But this child loved to read. Reading came easily for me in school, and I think that should have been a positive sign. Reading was a natural activity at home. No television, of course, in those days, and we children made regular walking excursions to the Public Library, which was a good distance from our house. My parents insisted that we speak good grammar, and we were very much aware of those who did not. I point out here that there was no profanity in our house. I never ever heard my parents curse or swear!
My latent artistic desires lay smoldering within. I tried to draw but unless a child exhibited a natural ability there was not much encouragement. I encountered this strange attitude all through school. Today all children are encouraged to express their ideas and feelings through art, and drawing ability is not the criteria. As I matured I found ways to express my creativity. I learned to sew, and I painted on glass and tiles and finally the whole world of china painting opened up to me. I discovered that it is possible to learn to draw, and to 'see' all over again, and never to ignore that little voice inside that tells you to try.
I plodded along painfully through Jr. High, and through a wonderful math teacher I found that I could grasp the concepts of algebra and for the first time got straight A's in math. It was in the eighth grade that I discovered the beauty and the delights of language and began to develop my vocabulary, and the love of writing was born.
My brain kicked in during the high school years and I discovered literature and history and earned a place in the National Honor Society. I worked on the school newspaper, and participated in all of the choral musical groups available to me. I earned a small Scholarship to the Colorado Woman's College, but did not get encouragement from my parents. My father was ill, and there were boys in the family who had priority. It was the end of the depression era, money was scarce, and war was looming on the horizon.
. Singing ultimately became a passion in my life. I sang in church choirs, Community Chorales and with the Sweet Adelines barbershop group.
After graduating from high school I found a job as a switchboard operator at a little flying school on the outskirts of Denver. There it was that I met Claude, and my destiny was sealed. The rest is history.
I have absolutely no regrets.
I do sometimes wonder. . . IF I had lived in a time when marriage was not the ultimate fate for a girl, and IF my parents had had the money to educate all of their children, and IF the war had not come along at that time to change the course of all our lives. . . . . .
Who would I be now?
Betty L. Owen, journals
Updated August 2005