Practical Wisdom That My Parents Taught Me

Updated February 16, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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My parents taught me many things throughout my life. Because of my parents, I now know how to cook, do my laundry, and sew. I can address an envelope, and I can catch fruit flies in my kitchen with a mason jar, some dish soap, and a cup of apple cider vinegar. These skills allow me to live on my own and take care of myself. My parents have also taught me practical wisdom that extends beyond these tangible skills.

Discussions of practical wisdom reach back to ancient Greece. Aristotle, a philosopher from this time, argued that humans must gain practical wisdom to live an ethical and happy life. Practical wisdom requires us to react thoughtfully to our situation and make a judgment about how best to handle an interaction.

Practical wisdom extends beyond our ability to complete a task or follow the rules. We apply this wisdom to each experience and react in different ways. Practical wisdom is the mindset that allows us to move through the world effectively.

When my parents taught me practical wisdom, they taught me how to survive in any situation. Although the technical skills, like cooking and sewing, help me get by, their practical wisdom benefits me every day.

When To Be Flexible

As a child, my parents taught me the importance of flexibility. One of my earliest memories of learning this lesson involves playing on the playground with my brother. The family often enjoyed an afternoon together at the nearby playground.

My brother and I loved the oversized tire swing that monopolized a corner of the playground. We begged our parents to push us on it, and eventually, our parents formed a rule: you could have three spins, and then it would be the other sibling's turn.

I watched as my parents lifted my brother onto the tire swing and started winding the chain to spin him through the air. His first and second spins sent him rocketing back and forth.

The third spin, however, caused my brother to tip off the tire. He landed with a thud, and his knee hit the pavement. My parents rushed to help him up as he cried, but I was more focused on getting my three spins on the tire swing.

That was when my parents instilled in me this first piece of practical wisdom. Even though I waited patiently for my time on the tire swing, I had to be flexible when something unexpected happened.

Knowing when to improvise gives me the tools I need to handle any situation. I now know that there is wisdom in letting new plans eclipse the old or altering an event. Not only does this skill help me remain calm when handling emergencies, but my flexibility also allows me to think on my feet.

This particular piece of practical wisdom is especially useful when organizing groups of people, answering questions at a job interview, or even making dinner plans with friends. Flexibility benefits almost all aspects of your life.

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When To Be Kind

Psychologist Barry Schwartz writes that practical wisdom helps people understand what emotional response to use in a given situation. My parents taught me this same wisdom when I was a child.

While at the grocery store with my mother, an employee rudely responded to us. Rather than reacting with anger, however, my mother simply smiled at the cashier and told her to have a nice day.

I was so confused. Why was my mother kind to someone who had treated us poorly?

My mother explained that you never know what someone else is going through. Maybe that cashier was not feeling well or was having trouble with her family. There is no way to know what caused the cashier to treat us like she did. Reacting with anger, my mom explained, would not have fixed anything. Reacting with kindness might have brightened that employee's day.

This tip follows me throughout my life. When I want to snap at someone, I consider the battle that they might be fighting. I recognize that emotions are tools, not uncontrollable responses.

Even if a situation makes you angry, sad, or confused, practical wisdom gives you the discretion to know how to react. Sometimes, reacting with anger feels natural when you are confronted, but a wise person knows when to express that anger and when to use a different response.

Not only does this piece of practical wisdom help you maintain your relationships, but it also helps you form new ones. With this wisdom, you can interact with the world more with more care and ease.

When To Bend The Rules

Just like the idea of flexibility, my parents also taught me how to know when to bend the rules. Although we often assume that breaking the rules always results in chaos, the actual world is far more complicated than that. Most decisions exist in a gray area that cannot be contained by the rules and procedures that we have.

When my parents taught me to drive, they told me always to follow the speed limit. It didn't matter if I was driving five minutes down the road to my best friend's house or across town. No matter what, I needed to follow the number on the sign.

When my sister shut her finger in the back door, my father sped all the way to the hospital. I laughed later, teasing him about how he didn't follow the strict rules he had set for me.

Even so, I understood how to hold these two ideas in my mind. On the one hand, I realized that following the speed limit was crucial under most circumstances. On the other, I understood that in an emergency, people may need to break the rules.

My parents taught me to distinguish between doing the correct thing, which typically complies with the rules, and the right thing, which may be better in practice. Practical wisdom, as the name suggests, often eschews written rules in favor of what works best in a real-world situation.

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When Not To Do It Myself

People often mistake practical wisdom for concrete skills. They assume that they have practical knowledge if their parents taught them to use a power drill or fix a dishwasher. Practical wisdom involves the knowledge needed to handle different situations. Although my parents taught me to handle situations myself, they also helped me learn when to yield to another's expertise.

When I moved into my first apartment, my father gave me a set of tools. He explained the purpose of each item in the kit and showed me how to make some basic repairs. Armed with this new knowledge, I felt prepared to take on the world.

Next, my father gave me a small booklet filled with business cards for local plumbers, electricians, and handymen. He explained to me that, although he knew that I was smart and capable, he also wanted me to be smart enough to know when to reach out for professional help.

I am not a plumber or an electrician, and because of the practical wisdom that my parents taught me, I know better than to assume that I am.

This piece of practical wisdom provided me with the power to make judgments about my abilities, as well as the abilities of others. I learned that my strength lies in the decisions that I make, not just the things that I do.

Yes, practical wisdom often revolves around knowing how to act in any situation, but this mindset also helps you gain discretion. Realizing when not to act is just as powerful as acting.

When To Get Help

Practical wisdom can help you navigate the world more effectively. When armed with practical wisdom, you tend to be more independent, more competent, and more self-assured. All the practical wisdom in the world doesn't prevent you from dealing with mental illness.

Yes, having practical wisdom means knowing when to get the help you need. Even if you know that you need to reach out, however, you might still have trouble getting the help you need. If mental health care seems out of reach, there is still a way to seek professional help for your problems.

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