In a recent discussion, the topic of what influences made you the person you are came up. Without hesitation I mentioned my mother, an incredibly wise woman who lived her faith instead of preaching it, who possessed a strong work ethic, and who never blamed others for hard times. Regular church attendance with an emphasis on regularly reading the Bible to discern for yourself what God expected of you was paramount. Mother and the church were natural influences for developing my character.
Then I thought of my elementary school best friend and her mother, my Girl Scout leader in eighth grade. Mrs. Friar had the home atmosphere any child would want. A stay-at-home mom, she made designer dresses for Margaret as well as matching dresses for the dolls. She allowed cats and their kittens in the house which we dressed in doll clothes. She provided interesting lunches, sometimes sandwiches cut in shapes or decorated as faces.
Our troop was fun each meeting. Besides baking cookies and taking them to nursing homes, we gave a play for our parents and marched in the Christmas parade. She even wrote a chant for us to say while we marched: “Left, left. Left my home and good warm bed because I thought it was right, right. Right on a hike the Kit Kats go and that’s just why we left, left…” At Christmas she had a tiny, lighted cardboard village on her mantle with cotton underneath to resemble snow. That village was magic to me, and I determined to have one someday. Our third Christmas, I purchased an identical one from Sears and have loved assembling it each year.
Mother, church, and Mrs. Friar were huge influences in my life, but movies were, also. A daily babysitter when my parents worked, movies provided not only entertainment but a safe environment. While my sister and I spent many hours playing in a corner of the small grocery store, we saw every movie that played in both theaters for many years. Since movies were not rated, as young children we saw seemingly adult movies, which would have been only PG. Horror movies were scary; we just closed our eyes. Cowboy movies had gun fights and shootings, but we were smart enough to know it was pretend and the good guys always won. Gangster movies had the expected violence, but the bad guys were clearly labeled and were eventually punished. The movies had a lesson that good triumphs.
My confidence of being able to create a lifestyle I would enjoy came from seeing strong leading ladies in roles where they were self-supporting, used their talents, and were not afraid of stepping outside their comfort zone. Susan Hayward played the owner of a dress shop in New York. Lana Turner played a war correspondent during World War ll. Virginia Mayo supported herself by performing on stage or in saloons. The movie roles had women working. They were independent; they made their own choices.
My lack of prejudice came in part from my conservative faith that emphasized we are all brothers and sisters in God’s eyes, and we are never to think we are better than someone else. Perhaps equally important was seeing Sidney Poitier in lead roles, Nat King Cole singing my favorite high school song, and sometimes seeing all black cast movies at one theater in my hometown. Eartha Kitt was one of the biggest actresses in the world during the 1940s. Pearl Baily appeared often in films I saw, and Ruby Dee was Jackie Robinson’s wife in the 1950 biopic. Strange to me even now, one of my two favorite movies from my childhood was the 1949 “Pinky” with Jeannie Crain as a light skinned African American who chose to pass as white for a time. In the end she realized her own worth and made a difference in her community. Most of the remaining cast was black.
Seeing independent women and minority actresses and actors in movies did not seem unusual to me. When I taught Classics in Film, one of the favorites was the 1961 “Raisin in the Sun” with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee from the play by Lorraine Hansberry about a black family who wanted to improve their circumstances. The movies reinforced my belief that with a determined work ethic anyone could succeed. Reasonable goals based on abilities and talents were necessary in making your life work, regardless of skin color or gender. That was my child’s perspective, flawed as it was, but I am glad I grew up seeing the person in total instead of only the outward appearance. Later, of course, I realized that prejudice exists on both sides.
When I was a teenager, parents worried only about the influence of “bad friends,” and that is still a concern. A friend’s influence can sway a child’s resolve in order to keep that friend or not appear a weakling. Television and movies were not too influential since the 1950s had only three channels and few programs that interested children, and most children attended only the weekend movies, which were family friendly. Even through the 70s, children were free to play outside or in other homes with little concern, and they did.
What influences today’s children? With today’s social media ever present in our children’s lives, my attention is on how those hours glued to it affect our youth. I doubt my mother realized how influential the daily movies were on who I am today. Fortunately, the relatively tame subject matter and the emphasis on good prevailing reinforced her values. I question whether parents today are fully aware of the effect constant attention to YouTube, movies, Facebook, Instagram can have. Some parents allow unlimited phone use, feel guilty if they dare monitor the web sites, use too much television for babysitting.
What is bombarding our children’s minds that we ignore? Coarse language and derogatory name calling have become common place on television. Netflix gives easy access to inappropriate films. Cars provide more freedom for teenagers. Keeping a child occupied with extra-curricular activities and sports get them away from the sedentary time robbers. Lots of family time and meals with directed discussion topics are too important to skip. As we know, young minds are impressionable sponges and do not have the life experience to judge wisely yet. Knowing to what extent a family’s values are being stamped into a child is difficult to assess until adulthood, but ignoring the influence of what the child spends time on can be detrimental to what most parents want for their child.
When my children were teenagers, a friend asked me what the prize was for being a good mother. She had been talking about career women who were winning prizes, awards, or promotions. The award for parents comes when your adult child is satisfied with who they are and happy with the choices they have made.