What unexpected life lessons have you learned from your father?

I came across a great story by a guy who wrote an article, “How my father gave me a terrifying lesson at 10”.

Please read the whole thing before reading further below, where I’ll share some stories about my own father.

The misunderstood lesson

(Warning: this is a spoiler if you haven’t already read the story.)

Did you guess what the lesson was going to be before reaching the end of the story? At what point did you get the idea that the author of the story did not grasp for twenty years?

I saw it coming as soon as terrifying accidents started happening down in the coal mine.

Basically, the father was trying to terrify his son out of becoming a coal miner like him. It was an act of manipulation but also of compassion. And it worked, but not without his son bearing resentment for the apparently mean and senseless prank for twenty years.

My stories

I was reminded of some less drastic manipulation that I faced in my childhood that had unexpected benefits that I didn’t understand at the time.

Like the author, I was about ten years old when these incidents occurred: old enough to feel embarrassment, shame, self-consciousness.

The cigar

One day my father came home from work with a box of cigars. I guess it was some kind of present. Neither he nor my mother smoked at all, so I was surprised that he lit one up and handed it to me to try out.

Note that this was around 1980, when I had lived ten years in the 1970s when I still saw a lot of smoking in old TV show and movies, and I saw the Marlboro Man everywhere in print (he just died last year from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease . Today’s anti-smoking culture in America did not exist yet then. I knew lots of people who smoked: my relatives, doctors, you name it. In fact, in the blue-collar neighborhood where we lived, half the teachers smoked, probably half my schoolmates smoked by the time they got to around age 12, our next door neighbors and their children all smoked. The local chess club my father took me to, located in the basement of the community center, was always filled with smoke.

Anyway, I had not yet reached an age when I might have started running around with a smoking crowd and gotten into it myself. I had a little bit of curiosity, but not much. Still, enough that I was excited that my father was going to share something “grownup” with me.

I had no idea what I was doing, took a puff, and coughed with total disgust. I didn’t know at the time that there were proper ways to handle a cigar; I guess it was a good thing I didn’t know that. All I knew was that I was in agony, the special treat from my father was bullshit, that I never wanted anything to do with a cigar, or by extension a cigarette, again in my life. I was angry that he did this thing to me. We never talked about this incident again.

And therefore, I have never smoked in my life. The memory of that experience was just too painful, and also by middle school, I started hearing preaching by some other adults (and some crusading classmates as well) about the health dangers of smoking. I was so traumatized that this information alone put me off permanently, overriding any natural curiosity I had about how pleasurable smoking had to be that people would take risks and pay money to engage in it.

The beer

Something similar happened with alcohol. One day my father had some cans of beer around, probably left over after some office party. We never had alcohol around. My parents did not drink. At least, so I thought.

Anyway, to my surprise, he opened a can and said to take a sip and try it out. I knew this was a “grownup” thing to do that I wasn’t supposed to, so I eagerly tried it out. The taste was revolting. Meanwhile, he drank the whole thing. Then he quickly got very red and acted funny. I learned a couple of lessons immediately from this: he shouldn’t be drinking, I hate beer, and I don’t want to get all red and funny.

Therefore, I was completely immune, all the way through high school, to any peer pressure to drink. Never mind that eventually I learned that you may have to get used to the taste, or that there were entire other worlds of alcohol, such as wine, that tasted different. For a long time, I just didn’t feel like experimenting.

The first time I drank alcohol again was right before college, some champagne at an awards ceremony for a science competition that took place the summer after I graduated from high school. I don’t know if I got red, but I was told that I was acting funny, and so I went to my room and fell asleep.

I went to a party the first week of college and there was beer, and now under the influence of many new friends, I drank some. But I still didn’t like it, didn’t like how everyone ended up behaving funny, wasn’t too happy that we were all underage, and so I never drank again in college.

Since college, I have now and then partaken of beer and wine, and acquired more of an appreciation, but because I get very dizzy and sleepy quickly, currently I almost completely avoid drinking. It’s just for the best.


Lecturing one’s children not to do something doesn’t always work, but sometimes trickery apparently works. I’m not praising it or condemning it, because I’ve endured other forms of trickery from my parents that backfired. I’m just surprised by how strongly I reacted and how susceptible I was to first negative experiences.

Do you have happy or sad examples of this kind of parental manipulation? Did they work on you or not, and was this to your long-term benefit or not? If you are a parent, are you above this trickery, or do you deliberately and cleverly use it?

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