When I think back on my own childhood I can’t help but feel lucky. I grew up on Long Island in a neighborhood that typified the suburban developments which sprang up all over America in the post-war 50’s and 60’s. Our house looked very similar to the other 30 houses on our block, and similar to the other 30 or 40 houses on each of the other adjacent blocks. They sat on lots that were 1/5 of an acre in size, which seemed plenty at the time, especially once our respective hedge rows which lined the backyards had filled in over the years.
The symmetry of the homes seemed to fit the symmetry of the families occupying them; we were all young families with no less than four kids per home, and in some cases as many as eight kids per home, often with a live-in grandparent or two, and usually a dog or cat for good measure. Every household I can remember had two parents at the helm; the dad worked, and the mom stayed home. There was never a shortage of kids to play with or things to do. Stickball, touch football and running bases were never ending, at least until Mom called you home for dinner. It seemed to be, indeed, The Wonder Years.
In 1988, ABC Television introduced a series by that very name, The Wonder Years. For five years it was one of the most widely watched and critically acclaimed shows on TV. Its setting and characters unavoidably reminded me of my own upbringing. The main character was a 12 or 13-year-old boy named Kevin Arnold, played by Fred Savage. He lived in a typical Long Island suburban neighborhood in the late 60’s, rode around on his bicycle with the chopper handle bars and long “banana” seat, and constantly wore a New York Jets football jacket everywhere he went. With his ugly plaid straight-legged pants, Kevin Arnold looked like my alter ego from 1970.
There was one important difference though. Kevin’s parents in the TV show were portrayed as a stereotype of the times themselves. His mom was overly doting and a bit ditzy, often wearing an apron and frequently playing peacemaker between household conflicts. Dad was stern and aloof, detached from any outward emotional connections with his wife, daughter or his two sons, Kevin and Kevin’s older obnoxious brother. Dad seemed too consumed by the stresses of his job, or the need to watch the Mets game on TV while sipping a Budweiser brought to him by Mom. I remember thinking how sad it was that the connection between Kevin and his father was really just functional at best. My parents were nothing like that. And that’s the lucky part I was referring to.
Hugs and Kisses
I’m sure that I’ve successfully over idealized my childhood and my parent’s approach to it in my current recollections. A truly objective assessment would have to concede that we had our fair share of dysfunction and discord. My siblings and parents would easily concur on this point, while smiling and shaking our heads at some of the more chaotic and frantic moments that now seem silly years later. But there’s no doubt about this: ours was a household that offered plenty of love and caring.
Interestingly, that love and caring was more inwardly realized than outwardly expressed. Our family was not known for its explicit displays of physical affection and verbal “I love you’s.” While you always felt the love, you didn’t often see it manifest in those transparent ways. No constant outpouring of hugs and kisses.
In recent years I’ve explored this issue with my mom, who’s now 77 years old. She agreed that our home was filled with more love than affection, and offered a few hypotheses that same reasonable. One theory was that in her own upbringing, her mother was also one who offered lots of love and caring, but with very little outward physical expression of it. Grandma Mac, my mom’s mother, grew up in an orphanage after losing both parents in her childhood. Life was always tough for this woman, and perhaps she never felt secure enough to outwardly connect to loved ones. Another possible explanation was that my family was filled with boys (four of us brothers, and just one younger sister), and all of that male testosterone made the show of affection more difficult. But who knows?
Ironically – and I must admit, somewhat to my surprise – my own family today has enjoyed outward affection to go along with the inner love and caring that we have for each other. Even with three sons, all now in their teenage years, my wife and I have the benefit of almost daily hugs, and consistent bedtime “I love you’s.” (Please don’t tell their friends!) It seems to have always come naturally to them. And they seem to want and need to do it. Perhaps that’s because the wanting and needing of affection is indeed a natural instinct.
The Need For Touch
Last month ABC’s Diane Sawyer did a story on the Power of Touch. She interviewed a psychologist who claimed that the act of a simple touch between humans can communicate more emotion and benefit than words themselves. And the researcher lamented that the United States lagged behind most other countries in appreciating this fact. The story was refreshing to see, but it really isn’t new news.
Scientists have been studying the power of touch for many decades. Perhaps most notable were the Touch Deprivation studies conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow in the late 50’s. Using animal studies he showed that infant primates deprived of a physical maternal connection, despite receiving all of the necessary nutrition and habitat comforts, were distressed and did not thrive. These monkeys even preferred the connection of a surrogate terrycloth mother to no mother at all. And in the ensuing decades since Harlow’s work, countless clinical studies on touch deprivation among infants in hospitals, adolescents in psych units and children in orphanages have all shown that when deprived of human connection through touch, we simply fail to thrive.
Perhaps Ms. Sawyer’s story is a sign that we will be paying more attention to this issue. I hope so. In any case I’m glad my young family is growing up more expressive than their prior generation. But in fairness to my own parents, as I thought harder about my childhood, I realized that perhaps I had overlooked many examples of our outward affection. Maybe they just came at different times and under different circumstances. I do remember, for example, Mom nursing our many emotional scrapes and physical bruises, both with Band-Aids and hugs. And I do remember Dad’s relentless tickling sessions where he would torment us with “the business” until our laughter reached a breathless state. And I remember when us four boys would pile on Dad in a jubilant wrestling match that always begged Mom’s color commentary of, “somebody’s going to get hurt!!” And how could I forget lying in bed at night, pretending to be asleep, when Mom or Dad would come in for one last tuck in. There was always the gentle stroke of the hair, or touch to the face. And by pretending to be asleep we could be free of whatever emotional barrier to such affection existed in the light of day. Maybe both parent and child took the easy way out when it came to affection. But thankfully we took it. I guess my own childhood was indeed a touching story, in more ways than one.