What I learned from my parents

Dad was a preacher and Mom was a teacher, so many of life’s lessons were given to my brothers and me explicitly and directly.

They were not shy about telling us exactly what to do, both in the moment with an assigned task and in the future with big life decisions. I still remember the speeches on saving money, dressing well to earn respect, eating my vegetables, getting enough sleep and brushing my teeth. It was all helpful and sound advice.

Larry and Sharon Wallace
Dad and Mom have aged (only slightly) since this photo was taken, but their wisdom and advice has been timeless.

But what I remember most from my parents came from their example. Here are the most impactful lessons I learned from my parents that have stuck with me to this day:

Cleanliness. I’ve heard my dad tell the story so many times I can recite it from memory. When they brought me home from the hospital, my mom was overly concerned for my hygiene. She bathed me two or three times a day. She disinfected every implement or toy I could touch, and she worked diligently to ensure my environment was as germ free as possible. Throughout my youth, keeping my room clean and assisting with the household chores like emptying the trash, vacuuming the floors and doing the dishes, were all non-negotiable tasks on my agenda. To this day, I remain fastidious about my hygiene and keep a clean house. Carla often accuses me of being unable to sit still and relax because I’m always wiping a surface, sweeping up the crumbs or picking up fallen tree branches and leaves from the yard. I don’t know if it was instilled from infancy, but it’s a lesson I learned well from my parents.

Responsibility. Our first house in Bedford, Texas, had a two-car garage, and we kept at least one side cleaned out for parking. Automatic garage door openers were a luxury back in the 1970s, so when I got big enough to hoist the door open, that was my job. My dad would pull into the driveway, put the car in park and announce, “Garage door opener, ho!” I jumped out, ran to the door, heaved and tugged at the handle until it got to eye level and pushed it over my head in triumph. This was my job, and I learned to do it consistently and without complaint.

It was also an opportunity for a lesson in economics. A few months into the assignment of this new chore, my dad called “Garage door opener, ho!” and I paused.

“Dad, I think I should be paid to open the garage door,” I offered, a little hesitant.

“Sure! Glad to pay you!” was his surprisingly enthusiastic response. “How much do you want? A nickel? A quarter? How about a dollar every time you open the garage door?”

“Yeah, a dollar sounds good,” I replied, a huge grin emerging at my successful negotiation.

As I opened the car door to rush to earn my first dollar, my dad offered one more point.

“One thing, though. Dinner tonight will cost you $3.50.”

I paused, thought about it, and realized I would quickly be in the hole financially.

“I think I’ll just open the garage door for free,” I said and never again demanded higher wages.

In my lifetime I have earned promotions and pay raises, but I have always been more motivated by trust and a sense of responsibility than accolades or money.

Faithfulness. My parents brought me to church just a few weeks after I was born, and I have missed few Sundays since. We never questioned church attendance in my family, even before my dad went into the ministry. Before he joined the staff at our church, he did everything he possibly could as a volunteer – teaching Sunday School, visiting prospects and the sick, assisting with construction projects and cleaning the church. My mother was just as committed, singing in the choir, playing the piano, keeping the nursery, and teaching adult women’s Sunday School. They were unbendingly and unerringly faithful to the church. As my dad used to say, “Jesus loved us so much that he gave His life for us. The least we can do is show up at church a few times a week.”

I am just as serious about my church attendance and involvement today. My family has made it just as habitual as I did growing up. They have learned to expect worship to be a part of our Sundays even when we’re on vacation. That can mean an intimate service with just our family or at the church with the people we are visiting. Love of the church is hardwired into my who I am, and I can’t imagine life without it.

Hard work. From the time I was big enough to push a mower, yard work has been the instrument to teach me the value of hard work. I can still hear my dad’s voice, “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” Raking, pulling weeds, digging lines for a sprinkler system, push mowing, picking up tree limbs and Spanish moss, cutting back bushes, pruning trees, and weed whacking on a nearly three acres of Central Florida property taught me to be diligent in gathering facts, conducting interviews, making calls, writing, editing, re-writing, taking pictures, updating web pages, meeting deadlines, responding to emails, drafting speeches, hosting media, creating integrated marketing communications plans, posting to social media, compiling budgets, building presentations, speaking to groups, doing on-camera interviews, managing a staff and much, much more. A good work ethic has been universally helpful to me. Seeing both of my parents work hard taught me that it should not be dreaded or avoided. Hard work should be the norm and the fruits of that work should be enjoyed.

Unselfishness. Both of my parents in different contexts put others first. My dad had a congregation of people for whom he would drop everything and go to the hospital to visit, pray with or counsel. He would show up in suit and tie to my games and performances, never complaining that he was too busy or too tired to watch yet another basketball game. My mom worked all day and prepared us nutritious meals every night, rose early to fix our lunches, and went without a lot of sleep to take care of us. I can also safely say she cared nothing for the hours of sports she endured on television or the hundreds of arcane conversations on the nuances of “Star Wars.” As a result, I rarely think “What do I want to do?” but instead try to anticipate what my family needs or wants, and I work to make that happen. I have learned to give up food on my plate, take the broken chair, pass up the game on TV, and even, on occasion, shop for home furnishings on a fall Saturday. I strive to be unselfish in my decision making and focus on putting others first.

Don’t follow the crowd. I have been taught to “take the road less traveled” since I first heard “broad is the way that leadeth to destruction” from Matthew 7:13 as a child in church. It was always more important to my parents that we do what was right than what was popular. This was true for fashion, music, movies, going to prom or anything that could be detrimental to our Christian witness. It started out for me as avoiding “the appearance of evil,” but I have more universally applied this principle to life decisions requiring a moral choice. I learned to avoid situations where people are behaving inappropriately or illegally. I try to choose what’s right vs. what’s convenient. These lessons have given me a spirit of independence and the ability to think for myself.

Laugh. My dad remembers jokes even when he can’t remember the day of the week. He has always displayed a knack for humor. My mom’s sense of humor can be off beat, but I can still hear the sounds of her laughter when she got together with her sister, Wanda. When my brothers and I were old enough to get away with it, we worked at making my parents laugh when we were around the dinner table. We saw how much joy it gave them. These days I don’t laugh enough, but repeating that scene around my family’s dinner table with my boys is hopefully teaching them how life-giving joy and laughter is.

Have adventures. The year my parents packed our car in secret and took us to Houston and Galveston on Thanksgiving has been forever imprinted on my identity. They taught me that anything can happen when I least expect it and it can be amazing. Dad explained the trip as we got in the car as “We’re going on a drive.” For almost the entire three-and-a-half hour trip we asked “When are we turning around?” to which my father replied, “Do you want to turn around?” I learned that sometimes it’s better not to turn around. It’s better to discover the adventure around the next bend. Having adventures, not knowing what is coming next, building anticipation and injecting surprise into life adds depth and meaning to our existence. It’s essential when life gets too predictable and hum drum. I try to remember to give my family little adventures whenever possible, and I got that from Dad and Mom.

I’ll bet some of these on this list have already filtered their way down to my children. At least, I hope they have. And I hope my boys know where these qualities and habits come from. Their grandparents are remarkable in ways they may not have fully appreciated.

Childhood stories about ‘Little Lancer’

Stories not only describe a life; they can shape it as well.

That’s true for the stories I’ve heard about my infancy and childhood as I have constructed my life’s narrative. These stories contain clues that explain my reluctance to change, fastidiousness, stubbornness, refusal to give in, and spreading joy with humor and good spirits.

red-headed toddler in a navy blue sailor outfit.
Wasn’t I cute kid? And apparently I was in the Navy. Mom was always proud of my ginger locks.

These are not the only stories I’ve heard, but they spring to mind most readily and are repeated most frequently. Here is my attempt to recreate them as accurately as my memory will allow:

As long as I can remember hearing my name come up in stories my parents are telling, I have heard about my first encounter with chocolate ice cream. The exact event is somewhat foggy, but I believe it was my second birthday. My family was in Columbus, Georgia, visiting my grandparents. The celebration included cake and ice cream, which my grandfather enjoyed while holding me in his lap. He offered me a spoonful of the dark brown ice cream, which I refused by shaking my head and saying, “No, burnt.”

Another often repeated story comes from my earliest days on earth. Apparently my mother was extremely careful with my hygiene when she first brought me home from the hospital. Prone to exaggeration, my dad insists my mom bathed me several times a day. He also said Mom disinfected every surface I might come into contact with as well my toys, pacifiers and teething rings.

When reminiscing about my childhood, Dad likes to tell about my resistance to sleep. When I was a toddler, they had the hardest time getting me to stay in bed and go to sleep. Desperate, they decided one night to test a suggestion from the pediatrician: let me stay awake until I fall asleep on my own to determine my natural bedtime then gradually put me to bed a few minutes earlier each night until I went to bed at the time they wanted. On the night they implemented the strategy, I stayed up playing until past midnight while my parents stayed in the den. Showing no signs of stopping, I left the den and toddled down the hall toward my room. My parents heard a “thud” from the hallway. When they got up to investigate, they found me passed out in the floor, still clutching a toy truck.

Even now that their son will soon be a 52-year-old adult, my parents like to tell the story about the time the power was out at our house. I was very young, just two or three, but I was old enough to make the connection between the lighting of candles and the singing of “Happy Birthday.” With no lights, my parents had lit candles in the house while workers rectified the problem. The candles put me in a festive spirit, so I began to sing my rendition of “Happy Birthday” around the house. I sang “Birthday you! Birthday you!” to my parents and the electrician. It’s such a fond memory for my parents, they repeat it annually, usually when wishing me a “Happy Birthday.”

I hope the stories my children hear me tell about them will bring them more joy than embarrassment and help them as they find their place in this world.