When I was four years old, I used to cry myself to sleep on a regular basis because I was scared that my parents were going to die, and I was going to be left all alone. Not because they were sick or worked in life threatening jobs, but because even at the age of four, I understood that my parents were older than all of the other parents of kids my age.
Being the youngest of nine children, it is easy to understand that my parents would be middle-aged by the time I came around. To make matters worse, I wasn’t just their last child, I was a complete accident. How do I know? Well, in addition to my older siblings informing me of this regularly, I did the math. My Mom was 43 years old and my Dad was 53 the day I was born. All eight of my older siblings were about two years apart, whereas I came six years after my sister, who was the eighth child. So, it wasn’t very difficult for me to calculate how I would have been a bit of a surprise.
But being an accident was never the issue as I knew my parents loved me. The issue was, for some reason, I got it in my head that I was going to lose them and that absolutely terrified me. Looking back on it now, I can see how this was my first real insecurity – that I would lose my parents at a very young age.
Fortunately, my fear never came to fruition.
On my eighteenth birthday, my Mom gave me a card where she confessed that when she first found out she was pregnant with me, she prayed to God that she would be so blessed as to see that birthday. Thanks be to God, she and my Dad not only made it to my eighteenth birthday and my high school graduation, but my college graduation, my wedding, and have even been a huge part of all four of my children’s lives.
Every Sunday, my kids and I head over to my parents’ house for lunch, during which time my Mom and Dad (who are now 82 and 92 respectively) spoil them with all the patience and leniency that I don’t remember them extending towards any of their own children. On the contrary, my parents (especially my mother) were very, very strict when it came to the way that my siblings and I were to behave. Having had that strict discipline instilled from a very young age is something that has greatly benefitted me my entire life, to the extent that I am now passing on much of that same discipline to my children.
My wife Bonnie and I started with instilling the basic practice of always saying “please” and “thank you” with our children, but have moved on to implement the very stringent mandate that the only appropriate response to anything we say is “yes, Mama” or “yes, Papa.” Though some parents might find this overly strict, we are of the same mindset as our parents in that we aren’t raising “children,” we’re raising “adults,” and like hell if our kids are going to be unemployed, living in our basement, and playing video games, when they’re thirty years old.
As children, when my Mom or Dad called for my siblings or myself, it was strictly forbidden to yell back, “What?!” Instead, we were required to drop whatever it was we were doing, yell back, “Coming…” and literally run to them. When we arrived in their presence, the only phrase out of our mouths that was acceptable was “Mande”, (short for “Mandame”) which directly translates to “Send Me” or loosely translates to “Tell me what to do”. As a result, I have never had a problem with authority, and I am exceptional at following directions. These two skills have helped me succeed in school, the workplace, and even in dealing with police officers during routine traffic stops.
Every so often though, I’ll meet someone who has a self- professed “problem with authority” and all I can think is that they must live a fundamentally tortured life since we are all incessantly surrounded by authority. For if it’s not our parents or our employers that are exerting their authority over us, it is the police, the military, or the government. Just try not paying your taxes and let me know how the IRS reacts to your problem with authority.
And so, I still respond to my elderly parents with the same “Mande” phrase every time they call for me. Not just because they beat it into me as a child, but more so because they proved to me time and time again that they solely used their authority in the best interest of their children. That is not to say that their execution was always perfect (how could it be?), but their intention has always been pure.
Over the years, I’ve asked my parents what they were thinking when they decided to have nine kids and my Mom’s response was a classic illustration of her devout faith:
“We didn’t decide to have nine kids. Before we had your oldest sister, I prayed to God and told Him that if He would be so gracious as to send us a child, I promised that we would do everything in our power to care for that child the best that we could. Then we had your sister. After that, I prayed to God again, saying the same thing. Then we had your oldest brother. Each time I prayed, I would tell God that if he sent us a child, we would do our best to care for them. That’s it. The only thing we decided was to have our arms open to God’s will.”
Just the thought of being open to God’s will is enough to scare most people, but not my parents. They have lived each day of their lives fully dependent, not only on His blessings, but even more so on His goodness. Their belief that God has a plan and that He can be trusted is visibly evident in the manner with which they live. From immigrating to a new country and having nine children, to allowing their children to make their own mistakes and supporting them through all of life’s many trials, they have always relied fully on the guidance, provision, and grace of God. My parents are so reliant on God’s will that as children we would get reprimanded for even talking about our future plans.
Whatever the topic, whether it was a desire for a weekend trip to the lake or a dream about our distant future, my Mom was always quick to attach a stern caveat to the end of each thought: “Si Dios nos da licencia!” she would command. Literally translated, this means “If God gives us license”. Figuratively, it is to say, “If it be God’s will”. As a child, I didn’t understand what was so wrong about making plans, but my Dad had the same perspective: “No sabemos que pasara de la noche a la mañana”, he would say.
“We don’t know what might happen from the evening to the morning.”
It wasn’t until I was in college that I started to understand my parents’ hesitation to haphazardly go around making plans. When I was fifteen years old, I thought I was bullet proof and by the time I turned eighteen, I was positive of it, the master of my destiny. But as I worked my way through college and began to experience the many challenges, responsibilities, and things outside my control that come with living away from home, I learned all about failed plans the hard way. My Mom would often tell me “If you want to make God laugh, just make plans.” Unfortunately, these detours weren’t enough to completely humble me, though they served as a solid introduction to the idea that I was not in charge. It wouldn’t be until I turned twenty-six that I would fully understand the gravity of my parents’ perspective, but we’ll get to that later.
Second only to their focus on faith and family values is my parents’ uncompromising work ethic. After losing both of his parents as a child, my Dad immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. with his older brothers in 1948 to work in the migrant farm fields. From Texas to Michigan, and Alabama to Arizona, my Dad harvested sugar beets, cotton, oranges, cherries, squash, and onions. After my parents were married in March of 1957 in their hometown of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, they ended up permanently settling in Layton, Utah in the early 1960s. According to my Dad, the reason they decided to settle in Utah was because the farmers paid the workers fairly and treated them well. As opposed to in Michigan, where the farmers would skip town in the middle of the night to avoid paying their workers or in Texas, where the workers were made to eat in the kitchen of the restaurants because of their brown skin, the farmers in Utah would stop and offer their workers a ride if they saw them walking down the road.
So, for the next forty-five years, my Mom and Dad (and subsequently their children) worked in the farm fields of northern Utah. In the beginning, it was my parents’ full-time job. They started out living in the migrant labor camp housing that was provided for the temporary workers, but eventually rented an old farm house that was owned by one of the farmers for $25/month. In 1968, my Dad got a full-time job at a local manufacturing plant and the farm work became a second job for him and the family. My parents would take us out to work every day after school in the spring and fall and we would work full time with my Mom in the summer.
Like all of my older siblings, I started working in the onion fields when I was five years old. Initially, it was simply my job to move the burlap sacks up the rows so my brothers could dump the wire baskets full of onions in to them. But by the time I was seven, I graduated to wielding a huge knife to cut the leaves off the onions (known as “topping” the onion) to fill up the baskets. As my older brothers went off to college and began careers away from the fields, I was eventually left to do the back-breaking work of dumping the wire baskets full of onions into the sacks with my Dad while my Mom and sister filled the baskets.
By the time I was fifteen, all of my older siblings were in college or had graduated and were out working on their own. This meant that during the summer, it was just my Dad and I who were left to go work in the onion fields. Starting at 4:30am, right as dawn was approaching, we would be unloading our tools from the station wagon in an effort to get a jump on the high- desert heat. The challenge of the desert is that it’s a place of extremes. In an attempt to avoid the afternoon scorchers of 100+ degrees, we were forced to endure the chilly mornings which could dip into the 50s. The cold mornings were regularly made worse as the dew from the onion leaves would soak our jeans from the knee down, which would leave us both shivering and longing for the sun to crest over the Rocky Mountains to warn us up. Ironically, the heat from the sun which we longed for in the morning was the same heat we would curse in afternoon.
My Dad and I would often work in silence. He would spend the time whistling iconically, as he was known to do, and I would rest with my imagination. When the work would increase in intensity, because there were a lot of weeds to pull or the heat was becoming unbearable, my Dad would take advantage of the opportunity to remind me of my true responsibility:
“Do you like working out here?!” he would shout at me in Spanish.
“No.” I would reply as if there was a chance he might let me quit working right then.
“Well then, you better study!” he would shout back in reply.
“If you don’t want to have to work out here, all you have to do is go to school and study hard. Then, you can go get a job working in the air conditioning. All you have to do is study. Don’t get me wrong, this is honorable work. The dollars are all just laying here, waiting for someone to come pick them up. But most people are too lazy or too arrogant to come and get them. But not us! We’re here.”
Man, I hated working in the fields. Waking up at 3:45am, frostbite in the morning, heat stroke in the afternoon. Fortunately, spending time with my Dad was easy. So long as I worked hard and did what I was told, he gave me all the space I needed. Plus, he let me keep all the money I earned which was a huge luxury. My older siblings never got to keep their money as it was needed to pay household bills, but by the time it was just my parents and I, there was more money to go around. So, even though the work was rough, I was the only ten-year-old I knew of that had a 40 hour/week summer job! Though we were only making $4.25/hour, it was a lot of money to me at the time, and it served as my first taste of the freedom and benefits that financial prosperity could afford.
Being that my Mom was as an accountant at Coca-Cola in Mexico before immigrating to the U.S., she understood budgeting and thus was in charge of all our family finances. Every Friday, my Dad would come home and hand my Mom his humble paycheck and my Mom would somehow make a dollar out of fifteen cents. As such, she wanted me to learn the importance of budgeting and saving my hard-earned dollars. She understood the stress that came from having limited finances. However, I took a different perspective from this experience. Rather than hold on to the dollars tightly, my prerogative was to spend them all! Not frivolously, but with intention.
My first major purchase was a high-end basketball hoop with a graphite backboard and a breakaway rim for our driveway. After that, I spent most of my money on the frugal luxuries that were often beyond the scope of our family’s humble budget. Things like eating out at restaurants and buying jeans from somewhere other than Kmart. These spending habits later evolved into fine dining restaurants, exotic vacations, and four- star hotels. But it was all done with my Dad’s reasoning that if you were willing to work hard, there was always more money to make. Even if it meant going back to the onion fields.
I have disappointed my parents plenty of times over the years. From the time I didn’t get accepted to Stanford when my two older siblings had, to the time when I quit my six-figure corporate sales job to take some time off and explore the non- profit sector, my parents haven’t always been pleased with me or my decisions. Fortunately for me, I decided at a young age that my parents’ opinion wasn’t where I was going to get my validation from.
It all started when I was fifteen years old and I brought home a report card with seven A’s and one A-. With a straight face, my Mom looked up from the paper and asked me, “Why did you get an A-?” Though this was the response I was expecting, I desired something more encouraging. Instead, my Mom stayed true to form, with her unwaveringly high expectations and cold motivational tactics. I responded by gently pulling my near perfect report card from her hands and simply walking away.
As much as I didn’t appreciate her tough love attitude, the next report card I got didn’t have an A- on it. It was a report card without blemish. But the lesson I learned here was that it was a waste of my time to try and impress my parents, or anyone else for that matter. If I was to get good grades, it needed to be because I wanted to get good grades, not because I wanted to earn the approval of others. I’m not sure if this was the lesson that my parents were trying to teach me through their actions, but it’s the one that I learned. This meant that the next time I got a disapproving comment on a near perfect report card from my Mom, I was ready with a response:
“Look, Mom – If all I cared about was getting straight As, I could take all remedial classes and ace them. But instead, I’m taking four Advanced Placement (AP) classes and the rest are Honors courses because I believe that an A- in AP Calculus is worth more than an A in Algebra. So, I’m sorry you’re disappointed with my less than perfect academic performance, but I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing this for me.”
From that moment on, my parents understood clearly that I had inherited from them the same stubborn resilience and independence that they had inherited from their parents, and that I was going to do what I thought was best. No longer was their opinion going to be law in my mind. Instead, it was merely a suggestion, which I usually considered old-fashion and out-of- touch. So, when they discouraged me from moving in with my girlfriend right after we graduated from college, I dismissed their input, though they ended up being completely right. It was a bad idea. Likewise, when they discouraged me from quitting corporate because I was “throwing away all of their hard work and sacrifices,” I also dismissed their input. I understood my long-term goals and I didn’t need their approval. Fortunately, they were wrong about this one.
Regardless of how old-fashion I thought they were or how disappointed they were with my decisions, their love for me and in turn, my love for them, was unshakable.
There is no denying that their brand of love is a “tough love,” not just toward me, but towards all of their children. Whether their method was right or wrong, they incessantly did their best to prepare us for all the challenges this life has to offer.
They blessed us with faith in a higher power, and a belief that we are part of a greater plan. They instilled in us the work ethic of providers, as opposed to that of beneficiaries. They equipped us with the discipline to understand that the only limits to our success are those that we set for ourselves. But most importantly, they showed us that there is nothing in the whole wide world more precious than being surrounded by a family/community that loves and supports each other unconditionally.
Posifocus Mantra #5
All Parents Are Perfectly Flawed.
Have you ever thanked your parents for all the good they did? Have you forgiven them for their mistakes? Do you wish you had a closer relationship with your parents? They aren’t going to be around forever.
Add your parents to the Contacts section in the Posifocus app. Constantly reach out to them and tell them that you love them. Treat them the way you want your kids to treat you.
Join the Posifocus Group and share your thoughts and experiences with the Posifocus Community! Use the hashtag #parents.