My mother's parenting style was a piquant combination of benign neglect and terrifying realism. She never made rules or suggestions based solely on propriety, principle, custom, or ceremony. Quite the opposite: all her parenting directives were rooted in a stark and sometimes terrifying reality.
Often I reaped the benefit of this approach, such as having no curfew ("What difference does it make whether you come home at midnight or 2:00 a.m.? What's going to happen to you at 2:00 that won't happen to you at midnight?") and letting my high school boyfriend essentially live in my bedroom for a year ("You're sleeping with him anyway, right? Why do we need to pretend it's not happening? Here's a gross of condoms.").
So when my mother told me not to do something, I usually listened. And the things she told me not to do were generally related to physical safety. She wouldn't just say something boring and ABC-after-school-specialish like "don't do drugs," or "don't drink and drive." She would illustrate these points with stories. Stories from her medical school days in the 1970s. Specifically the emergency room of Bellevue, the oldest public hospital in the United States and one of New York City's busiest trauma centers.
These stories would typically begin with "I once saw a guy come into the emergency room . . . " It was like a darkly comic version of the typical "Once upon a time" fairy tales more normal mothers (presumably) told their kids.
"Never use LSD," she warned me ominously. "I once saw a guy come into the emergency room on twelve hits of acid. He was eating his own shit mixed with M&Ms!" So vivid was this image of an unhinged bedraggled West Village hippie--munching on a handful of his own excrement speckled with colorful green, red, and yellow M&Ms like a grotesque Blizzard from Dairy Queen--that I was never once tempted to try acid.
"Never ride a motorcycle," she cautioned almost every time we saw one. "Not even with a helmet. I once saw a guy come into the emergency room and his head was melted into the helmet."
While visiting Vietnam a couple years ago, I had no choice but to get onto the back of a motorcycle. I almost literally kissed the ground when my friend, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, dropped me off at the airport in one piece.
I was unable to heed my mom's advice on that occasion, but her warnings were effective: I knew I was extremely lucky to still have my head and the motorcycle helmet as two separate objects.