Out of the mouths of moms: words to live by

ALICE STEINBACH

December 06, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Raising kids to be philosophers used to be easier when I was growing up. Back then, we kids listened when Mom spouted philosophical stuff like:

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."

Or: "Turn your stumbling blocks into stepping stones."

Or: "Always wear clean underwear in case you get hit by a truck and have to go to the hospital."

Of course, although we listened, we didn't always absorb what Mom was saying the first time she said it.

No matter. Mom just kept saying it over and over until she was certain it was firmly imprinted in your brain. She considered it a signal that she could move on to the next philosophical lesson when, for example, she overheard you warning a disagreeable playmate in the sandbox: "Do not remove a fly from a friend's forehead with a hatchet."

Mrs. Nietzsche, I am told, used the same approach when little Friedrich Wilhelm was growing up. Of course, the difference is that little Friedrich parlayed his mom's philosophical musings into a big-time career. What can I say? The guy just had a talent for paraphrasing.

For instance, when his mom would say, "To get ahead in this world, you've got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps," little Friedrich would run to his room and write down: "If ye would go up high, then use your own legs!"

Most philosophizing mothers, however, know better than to expect that every sow's ear of a son or daughter can be made into a Nietzschean silk purse.

The truth is, most kids don't want to be philosophers. It is not, after all, the easiest way to make a buck in today's world. The truth is, most kids want to be baseball players or rock stars.

Still, there are a few contemporary philosophers we can hold up to our kids as successful role models:

* Barry ("I've made it through the rain") Manilow.

* Woody ("The heart wants what it wants") Allen.

* Gloria ("A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle") Steinem.

* Kermit ("It isn't easy bein' green") the Frog.

Still, it would be unwise for any parent to count his or her chickens before they hatch. Philosophically speaking, that is.

As a parent, I can say I left no stone unturned in seeking ways to exchange deep, philosophical thoughts with my sons.

When they were young, for example, I disguised the philosophy in a story.

Son: "Mom, why am I the only kid in fourth grade who always gives the wrong answer in arithmetic class? What should I do?"

Me: "Son, I want to tell you a story about a great man named Mark Twain. He explained not knowing the answer to a question by saying, "I was pleased to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know."

Son: "So you're saying that Mark Twain is as stupid as me."

After this exchange I switched to the fortune cookie approach to teaching philosophical lessons.

"He who falls in love with himself falls in love with a fool," I said when a son complained about the color of his hair.

"A frog does not drink up the pond he lives in," I advised a son who declined to clean his room.

This approach worked fairly well until the sons reached adolescence and moved into the world of: Total Music. Headsets became a part of their wardrobe. And lyrics to songs became their philosophy of life.

Me: "It's time to do your homework."

Son: "You can't always get what you want."

Me: "It's time to get ready for bed."

Son: "Hey! Mister Tambourine Man play a song for me. I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm goin' to."

Me: "How about staying home tonight?"

Son: "We gotta get out while we're young. 'Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run."

For a long time I thought that all my philosophizing had been in vain. But a recent phone call from one of the sons suggests I may have made a slight dent. "Mom," he said, "I've been thinking of what you used to say when we were unhappy about something."

I searched through my mind. Was it: "Strong people are made by opposition, like kites that go against the wind"? Or: "More can be learned in one day of discomfort than in a lifetime of happiness"?

Naaahh! It turned out to be: "Whatever it is, get over it."

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