My late mother, Rita, showered lots of love on her children, and she expressed her love to me best in a lesson capsulated by the saying "Be your own person."
My individuality sprouted at age 7, when the seeds of my atheism were sown. My Catholic school teacher taught that Jesus walked on a body of water, but I doubted this "truth." Years later, I questioned why the equally unrealistic tales of Greek gods were called "myths," but an immaculate conception and a parted sea were "miracles" to be taken on faith.
By 13, I'd rejected religion, refused to make my confirmation and stopped attending church. While my mother voiced her disapproval, she ultimately respected my decisions. She never imposed her beliefs on me. Her unstated yet invaluable lesson was that it's good to think for myself.
Nonetheless, my mother wielded a strong influence on me throughout my adolescence. Intellectually, through her example as a voracious reader, she instilled in me a life-long love of learning. Morally, she shrewdly dissected people's beliefs and behavior, and fearlessly criticized them when they acted unjustly. Politically, she was a devout liberal of the FDR variety. Her positions seemed well reasoned, and she exemplified how to passionately stand up for your beliefs.
The more experienced and well-read I grew, however, the more the independent, reasoning mind she'd cultivated in me challenged her beliefs. We often had some heated debates.
For instance, my mother, a switchboard operator, believed the relatively low wages workers like her made was due to business owners collaborating to pay below what their employees should earn. If true, I asked, then why didn't employers conspire to pay all operators even lower wages? Because, I argued, when employers pay workers below what the free market demands for any labor, other employers will attract those workers with higher salaries, thus raising average wages.
During such arguments, my mother often stubbornly repeated her positions. She clung to her beliefs — her faith. And I'd stood by the truth, just like she'd taught me to do.
While we eventually grew apart, my basic love for my mother never ceased. In part, I always admired her for teaching me, as I eulogized at her funeral, "how not to just passively accept what most people hold as true, but to question them to find the logic in their beliefs."
Today, this lesson serves as the basis of my philosophy, one of rational inquiry and integrity toward my conclusions. If, instead, my mother had scornfully crushed my independent, individual beliefs early on, I'd have been robbed of the opportunity to achieve the much greater happiness I've enjoyed since adopting my reason-based ideas. This achievement alone makes a parent's respect for a child's individuality a crucial part of parenting.
* The original version of this column appeared in the Oceanside-Island Park Herald in 2003.