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How To Play Nice in Life’s Sandbox - 5 Essential Lessons Learned in Childhood

Updated on July 31, 2012

Playing Nice in the Sandbox

We learn our lessons here in the sandbox, early in life.
We learn our lessons here in the sandbox, early in life. | Source

What We Learn in Childhood Follows Us All Our Lives

Lessons learned in childhood follow us all our lives, whether we like it or not or whether we consciously think about them in our adult years. These early life lessons might come from rules our parents and teachers set for us, or they might arise from a single significant event.

Whichever way we learn these lessons, they are likely to become so ingrained as to shape our personalities for the rest of our lives.

These five lessons learned in my childhood helped me grow into a person who, for the most part, plays nice in life's sandbox. Not that there haven't been times I’ve scrubbed the lessons and broken the rules, but each time I did, it just didn't feel quite right, or it felt so horrible that I had to run to the confessional, or, worst of all, the consequences of breaking the rules either landed me in a personal heap of trouble or put someone else in danger.

Here are the things I was told as a child that helped me learn how to play nice in life’s sandbox.

Garfield Pickled

He must have done something bad!
He must have done something bad! | Source

1 • Bad behavior sends you to the pickle factory.

The pickle factory is a very bad place. It is a monster unto itself. All children have monsters under their beds or in their closets. By the time we are grown, most of us don’t remember the feeling of terror that these imagined beings visited on us. However, in my family, the idea of the pickle factory could, and still can, bring on heart palpitations and even night terrors. If we sassed back to an adult, refused to do our chores, or whined because we couldn’t have something we wanted, then we were told we’d be sent to the pickle factory. The factory would stuff us into a glass jar, add vinegar to the top, and seal us up with a tight lid.

Even today, my younger middle-aged cousin gets a chill up the back of her spine when she thinks about how she believed she could have been removed from life’s sandbox and permanently pickled. Needless to say, we children are a well-behaved bunch who get along well with others.

But When You Are in China...

Food is not negotiable unless, perhaps, you are a Jew in China. Under extraordinary circumstances, a polite “no thank you” will not let you escape something you know you do not want to, or cannot, eat, like millipedes. Michael Levy's account is a much more adult version of spitting up partially chewed liver behind a couch. He wasn't labeled as a cantankerous child, but as a spy. A great read!

2 • Food is not negotiable.

Growing up, breakfast was cereal and milk, lunch was a sandwich and fruit, dinner was a green vegetable, a salad, a starch, and a meat. There was no whining about what you didn't like. Good food was there, and you ate it, or not. If you didn't like it, you could excuse yourself from the table.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t rebel against food now and again. For example, my mother’s liver was the worst food I’d ever eaten. I can still remember when, at the age of three, the liver was so repulsive that I ran into the living room when my mother wasn’t looking and spit out a partially chewed mouthful behind the couch. Mom found the nasty stuff the next morning and gave me a lecture about the starving Armenians, but she also never made liver again until she learned to make de-veined calf’s liver delicately sautéed in bacon grease and smothered in onions, a dish I love today.

There are few foods I don’t like now, although there are some I have an intolerance to. When dining as another’s guest, if there’s something I can’t or don’t want to eat, I follow my daughter’s cordial example and say politely, “No thank you.”

This Is Cute to Parents Only

Do you want to see your date doing this?
Do you want to see your date doing this? | Source

3 • Don’t chew with your mouth open.

No one wants to see the food in your mouth turning into mush, smearing your teeth and tongue, and no one wants to hear you chew it. You have more socially engaging things to do with your mouth, like speaking and kissing. But this childhood lesson goes even deeper: chewing with your mouth open shows thoughtless disrespect for the company that graces you with their presence.

If you haven’t learned this lesson by the time you are old enough to date, don’t be surprised if you never have a second date with someone you fancy. And, if you haven’t learned this lesson by the time you are old enough to go to work, you will never land the job of your dreams if your interview is conducted in the social setting of a shared meal. Remember that when you chew with your mouth open in the sandbox, you will get sand in your mouth.

Caps Fly into the Future

Education, I was taught, is the gateway to the future. There's truth in that.
Education, I was taught, is the gateway to the future. There's truth in that. | Source

4 • College is not optional.

My mother's family came to this country from Poland during the Great Depression when she was six years old. She didn’t know a word of English. She and her siblings attended a Polish Catholic school in her new country, and that is where my mother learned the English language and the value of an education.

Every day during my high school years, my mother dished out the importance of earning a college degree, right along with the dinner salad. Her goal for me was to come out of college with two degrees: a bachelor’s so I could become a nurse or teacher and never have to worry about having a good job if I wanted one, and the Mrs. so I’d never have to worry about anything else. I did graduate college, although not with credentials for either nursing or teaching, and I did get that Mrs., although many years later.

Her wishes for me were much like most every parent’s. She wanted me to have more and greater opportunities in life than she had. There is no doubt that her persistence paid off when it came to opening doors that would otherwise have been closed to me and when it came to understanding cultural diversity.

Young and Homeless

I have more than most, and should never feel sorry for myself.
I have more than most, and should never feel sorry for myself. | Source

5 • You have more than most.

The subtext of this childhood lesson learned reads something like, “Don’t feel sorry for yourself.” There were things I wanted as a child but couldn’t have because, although we were not exactly poor, we were always on the edge. My mother had a good job with S&H Green Stamps with benefits the likes of which we rarely see today, but she also earned a salary that left little for anything but the necessities. We had good food, health care, a sparse but comfortable place to live, and a yearly vacation, but we did not have enough for me to wear the color-coordinated mohair sweaters and soft leather “football” shoes that every girl in my class measured worth by.

Mom taught me to be thankful for what I do have and to respect those who have less, whether less means less material goods or less belief in themselves. I learned from her, early on, that even a small word of encouragement, even a moment of caring transformed into a helpful act, can make a difference not only to the other but to yourself.

Sandbox Basics Work Well for Life

Use lessons learned to ward off kitty-doo and rain, no matter where in the world you are, no matter how large or small your sandbox.

How Big Is Your Life's Sandbox?

When I was growing up in the 1950s, my sandbox was defined by friends, classmates, family, local community, and also the history and culture of another country, Poland. In those years, we communicated by phone, hand-written letters, and by getting family and friends together on special occasions. An individual’s sphere of influence, for most folks, had a shorter diameter in those years, and was definitely less immediate when people were separated by geographical distance.

Today, if we choose, we have instant connections to huge audiences all over the globe through the Internet and phone. These immediate connections make life’s sandbox a great deal larger. Playing nice in life’s sandbox has taken on greater dimensions. Where once our voices might have been heard only in our local communities and personal relationships, now they can be heard all over the world with just a tap of the finger.

Writing on the net, I wonder every day how my voice is heard by others whom I will never know. But one thing I do know is that I will do more good than harm, because of lessons learned in childhood.

Please tell us in a comment, below, how you see your sandbox.


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Great article, I read some parts of it to my students

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Stephanie, thanks so much for your affirming words about that sandbox. Some of us were gifted by family, friends, and teachers who knew where the important aspects of life belonged. You and I, and others, are blessed by having them in our lives.

      As a kid, I didn't have much "stuff". But I had those times of being in the woods (gathering mushrooms with my uncle), being on the beach (with my mother), and catching polliwogs in streams with my best friend of 58 years (trish1048 on HP). These things are of so much more worth than stuff. Thank you for sharing.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      7 years ago from USA

      This is a beautifully written hub about learning life's important lessons. We learn so much in our childhood "sandbox" that influences us all our lives. One of the most important lessons I learned as a child is that having more "stuff" won't make you happy. The best times I ever had were exploring the woods with my brother or playing on the beach with my family. Thanks for a lovely hub! Voted up!

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      @RTalloni, indeed, "much" is relative; likewise the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence--that's an optical illusion. Thank you for reading and leaving your thoughtful comments and good words. :)

      @Happyboomernurse, lol...the pickled Garfield is probably my favorite! Glad you enjoyed, and many thanks for the up votes. :)

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Mary, I remember my first lesson about the golden rule. It was in second grade, delivered by a teacher. I'll have to write about that one day.

      I also had to finish everything on my plate, but I was crafty and shifty, spitting some of it out behind the living room couch...another topic for another day.

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      @Jools99, I love what you parents taught you about "sweets taste better if you share them". That says everything! You were raised right.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      7 years ago from South Carolina

      Well said, and the photo illustrations made the life lessons humorous and fun.

      Voted up across the board.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Timeless lessons here, no matter our age. How "much" we have is always relative to another person's "much" and learning not to weigh/value "much" is imperative. Focusing on lessons like these helps keep what's important in focus. Good stuff!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      As a mother, and a Grandmother who tries very hard to teach my children how to "play nice in their sandbox", I am always advising them what to do and say. I just hope some of my words stick. You had wonderful parents, and I did too.

      The most important rule I think: Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You!

      I voted this Hub Up, etc. and shared!

      PS : I had to finish everything on my plate.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      7 years ago from North-East UK

      Sally's Trove, really enjoyable and interesting hub - my sandbox was shared with 2 younger siblings - if you're the eldest, you get used as an example for the others, what a pain. My parents did a good job with all 3 of us, teaching us a great many things which we've all brought with us through life - we didn't have much and my mother always told us it was important to save for a rain day - that's one of the best lessons she ever gave me and also we were told 'sweets taste better if you share them' :o)

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Robie2, I don't think you need any reminders. You were raised well, and from how I've come to know you, your sandbox lessons have served you well throughout your life. I worry today about kids' digital sandboxes...I think they rely on them in the absence of parenting. Food for thought, as you always give.

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      7 years ago from Central New Jersey

      What a lovely metaphor your sandbox is-- and how true that we learned the most important lessons there. I identify with so much here and can't help but think that event though kids today have a digital sandbox that spans the globe to grow up in, the lessons are still very much the same. Thanks for reminding me:-)

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Thank you, albertsj!

    • albertsj profile image

      jacy albertson 

      7 years ago from Lake Mary, Fl

      Love this. It's full of wisdome & insight. Voting up, and sharing.

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      And thank you for your comment, MissFrost. :)

    • MissFrost profile image


      8 years ago from 50% Island Girl, 25% East Coast Girl, 25% Country Girl

      I especially loved your section titled...thanks for adding humor to your tips of advice!

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      pftsusan, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Although it can happen that we lose patience later on, especially if we have children but not the insight about raising them, then it can come to a matter of "Do as I say, not as I do." However, here's some good news for us as we age into our elder years...things can shift into a fruitful perspective, and fruitful patient action. There's much to think about in your comment, and I thank you for that. :)

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Neil, is this why you don't write poetry...Wait a minute! Maybe this is why you should write poetry.

      Love your comment, my friend, just for what it is (both warm and hysterically funny), and also because it reminds me of a much-loved but now long-gone friend who used to say about me, with much respect and reverence, referring to my mother (you guessed it!), "the nut don't fall far from the tree."

      This is a circle of life we want for generations of parents and their children, and their children, and their children. ~Sherri

    • pftsusan profile image


      8 years ago from Eatontown

      There were so many valuable lessons that you touched upon in here. The one that hits me the most that a good 80% of us adults lose patience by the age of 30 or so. And it usually gets worse as we get older. Sometimes kids see this and adapt this behavior. Then we teach them patience, they're out there and doing it and still we are not. So that is one thing to re-learn. Voted this up.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Sherri, please allow me a little inside humor about Annemaeve. And to do that I have to mix a naturally impossible metaphor. When it comes to Annemaeve the "Pickle" didn't fall far from the tree.

      Oh well, you get my drift.

      I think you have hit a chord with this wonderful Hub. Thanks, again. NEIL

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      PBW, I so identify with you! It sounds as though you and your husband have house rules in place, which your stepson obviously can learn, and it is a good thing that you enforce them. Know that, in the long run, these lessons will impact him positively. Thank you for reading, commenting, and leaving the good words. :)

    • PeanutButterWine profile image


      8 years ago from North Vancouver, B.C. Canada

      Loved the chewing with mouth open, that is one of my particular 'peeves' as I currently have a stepson who is rarely here and when he is, he has to re-learn manners because apparently there are none taught at 'his' house. Arrgh! Great Hub!

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Annemaeve, the lesson that you share is rich in so many dimensions. Your success in your career speaks to work in a big picture every day, bringing your compassion and skill to the task, and make a difference for so many. When it comes to Karma, you've already earned the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

      Thank god you weren't subjected to the pickle factory. That threat sometimes made children afraid to step forward and stretch their wings. :)

    • annemaeve profile image


      8 years ago from Philly Burbs

      Love these lessons! I think my most important childhood lesson might be "You're a small part of a great big picture. You don't know half as much today as you will tomorrow, so hold on tight for the ride!"

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Journey*, you are so welcome.

    • Journey * profile image

      Nyesha Pagnou MPH 

      8 years ago from USA

      I really enjoyed reading this hub. Thank you.

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      So true, katiem2, children see with eyes more open than adults. And adults sometimes forget that they were children.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What a delightful collection of helpful truths. Indeed we all need to practice the 5 lessons learned in childhood. If we adults could only remember to practice these basic and good rules the world would be a better place.



    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      You don't have to tell me, but if you did, I promise, I'd never tattle. :) Another one of those sandbox rules.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      If I say a word I might have to wash them again. NEIL

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Neil, you are a stitch. If that degree of digital resolution were around in the 50s, I might pretend to be the girl in the blue hat. :)

      Your parents, as my mother, made the consequences clear about stepping out of the rules that would guide us for the rest of our lives.

      I never had powdered milk, but you and I sure shared a lot of liver. :)

      So, when't the last time you washed dishes?

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Feline Prophet, I knew you'd have an empathy with Garfield in the jar.

      I love the saying, "Well begun is half done." I never heard that before.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about the sandbox. I think it's much the same in India as it is here. We both keep sand out of our eyes as much as possible, maybe by napping. :)

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      Trish, we did share that small town. I left there kicking and screaming. I wanted to stay with you and your parents, but you know all this.

      "Never judge a book by its cover." When I hear these words I think of your mother. She embraced me, and so many others, not by our covers, but by what she saw underneath. And you, my dearest friend, do the same. :)

    • proudgrandpa profile image


      8 years ago from Charlotte, NC

      Nice blue hat Sherri. Now don't be shy.

      My sandbox was the wonderful beaches in Fort Lauderdale FL. They were wide open and fun in the 50's. Like you I had parents that loved us enough to give us good and lasting lessons about playing nice and I think I still do.

      We were dirt poor but we didn't know it. Powdered milk (It's gray for those too young to know about it), and lots of liver too. Our Mom had the rule about food that you could QUIETLY push it to the side of your plate but if you complained you had to wash the dishes. That shut us up.

      Great hub, thanks. Grandpa NEIL

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 

      8 years ago

      So, even Garfield gets into a pickle now and then! No wonder he spends most of his life napping! :D

      Like all your hubs, ST, this is full of've obviously learned how to deal with life's sandbox without getting too much sand in your eyes! Childhood lessons are definitely the most important - like they say, well begun is half done! :)

    • trish1048 profile image


      8 years ago

      My sandbox was limited to, but not to the exclusion of, my very small hometown, one which I shared with you. Our hometown was a world unto itself. There I learned of fields, woods, a stream, a pond complete with poliwogs, the canyon and the tiny library. I went to one school from kindergarten through senior year. I not only had the benefit of knowing my classmates, but also learned how to interact with them. I learned the proper way to relate to teachers, and was also taught to respect anyone in authority.

      My childhood was filled with wonderful school experiences along with interacting with my family. My parents were very social creatures, and we spent many hours visiting with immediate family. My visits with my grandparents were my favorite. I remember well the lessons they taught me such as table manners, ways to behave in church and much more exciting to me, ways to enjoy being a child. I was luckier than a lot of my peers in that my parents would take me and my brother across country to visit aunts, cousins and my grandmother. That happened two or three times and I learned an appreciation of how people in rural parts of our country lived. I so loved my aunt's farm, being able to play with all my cousins and to watch my aunt 'slop' the pigs from the back porch. I loved my grandmother's tiny house where she would make the most amazing food. She taught me how to do dishes and tried to teach me how to make a quilt. More than mastering how to sew, I especially loved all the scraps of colorful fabric and had great fun picking out what appealed to me. Sadly, I never finished learning that lesson as our visits were only for two weeks.

      So, lessons learned for me were play fairly, be kind to one another, never judge a book by its cover, listen to your parents, and respect all elders. The most powerful role models I had growing up were my mom and my grandparents. I miss them sorely.

    • Sally's Trove profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      drbj, I love your comment. The ability to listen is of far more value than the ability to can we talk with meaning if we haven't listened first? Some never learn this lesson in the childhood sandbox. Like you say, two ears, one mouth. This was not an accidental design.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      What excellent life lessons learned in the sandbox, Sally. I would add just one more: since God has given us two ears and one mouth, we need to try listening twice as much as we speak. Saves a lot of aggravation. :)


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