If the person we’ve become has been shaped by both inborn personality traits and life experience, then the relevance of good role models and a full life are clearly important to every child’s social and emotional development.
When I was a child my grandmother lived with our family of six and every Saturday she got up very early to bake cakes for a lavish morning tea. I often helped by whipping the cream with a strange looking metal beater. Turning the handle made the two beaters spin around and, after a lot of winding, the cream became thick. The large coffee table was covered with a lacy, white table cloth, the crystal sugar bowl placed into the centre, a small plate with a shiny stainless steel tea strainer sat beside the sugar bowl and two plates of cakes were assembled for easy reach. At the centre of the table was a large, shallow, salmon pink, glass vase that my grandfather ‘acquired’ from an expensive department store he worked at as a delivery driver during the Great Depression. This vase had a statuette of a fish on a wave, which rose up from the centre, and usually contained a display of bright red flowers from the camellia bush in our driveway. It was a stunning display. My grandmother used her good, white tea set with gold rims on Saturday mornings. The table always looked fit for royalty and made us all feel welcome and important.
My father’s brother and two sisters arrived mid-morning and we all sat together eating cakes, sipping tea and talking about life, family, politics and world affairs.
We children sat on the carpet at the edges of the coffee table for the initial thirty minutes. When we turned thirteen we were allowed to have a cup of tea, otherwise we were glad for some cake and to be privy to the conversation of grown ups. The other children drifted away and I sat quietly as the adults continued to talk about their week.
One of my aunties had lost her son and four year-old grandson to a drunk driver, which was a very grim time. I saw the reassuring hand of her sister move to her knee as she sobbed, watched her mother pour another cup of tea and heard the calm, intelligent voices of her brothers as they reassured her that her son and grandson wouldn’t be forgotten. And it’s true, they were never forgotten.
I watched the elders of my family laugh together, cry, ache with concern and strengthen in support of one another. They were open with one another and showed courage, insight, empathy, understanding, honesty, compassion, kindness, independence and resilience. They were like this because of Saturday mornings together. They were always up to date and in touch.
Sundays were spent at my other grandparents’ house, which was a very different environment to my Saturday morning home, but with the same results.
At Granny and Pa’s little, three bedroom home lived my mum’s three younger brothers (in their twenties) and her teenage sister. They teased one another, bickered, argued and jostled for power and attention. Granny always made a roast lunch for the dozen of us and, after church, we sat talking, laughing and eating together.
After lunch Pa always watched the wrestling or the football on TV. In this house no emotion was held in and words weren’t carefully formulated. When disagreements peaked and insults stung, they shook their heads, called the offender an idiot and pretended not to care – despite the fact they obviously did care. Anyway, the offence was forgotten within a few minutes.
One Sunday the usual dozen of us we were squashed in around the kitchen table, which was usually laid with a bright green tablecloth; a plastic supermarket salt shaker and Skipping Girl mint sauce bottle; an odd mix of crockery; an ancient-looking cutlery set with forks that had bent prongs and knives with blades worn down to a smooth edge; and the roast. To my horror, Mum mentioned my need for a training bra and Granny said she had one of my aunty’s old training bras she could give me. Embarrassed, I wanted the floor to open up and take me away from the laughter of my uncles but I was better off pretending I didn’t hear anything. Pa scoffed, announced that he was going to watch the wrestling and the conversation naturally moved on.
My weekends were spent watching and learning how the adult world worked as I was surrounded by the actions and interactions of my elders. I was spellbound by their stories of bygone days, how different and tough their childhoods were, the way they spoke, their raw emotions, their bravery, strength and support of one another. My Sunday family was so different to my Saturday family – and I loved them both just the same and for different reasons.
In both the quiet, supportive, nurturing environment of Saturday morning tea and in the rowdy laughter and teasing of Sunday lunch I was immersed into polar opposites of how loving families lived. This pattern of my childhood offered me a range of role models who each interpreted and responded to the world around them in their own way and I selected what suited my quiet and sensitive nature and integrated those qualities into the person I grew into.
Not everybody has this type of family, though. Many of our childhood friends were migrant families who had no uncles, aunts, cousins or grandparents in this country. Our friends often came along to our family get togethers and they benefited the same way that I did… but with the additional delight of eating Australian food, something they never had at home. Our friends often commented that spending time with my family was where they learnt about the same things I’ve been writing about here. This makes me realize how important it is to expose children in foster homes and orphanages to extended family with older generations. It wouldn’t have to be family – but it would need to be regular, consistent and safe.
Quality family time is about exposing children to a nurturing environment, good role modelling, predictable consequences for their actions, a sense of belonging, unconditional love and care.
In experiencing this, I’ve had the opportunity to adopt the best qualities of my parents as well as my Saturday and Sunday families. So… when being myself I am also being parts of them.