The first time I realized that my life was destined to be an ongoing game of Simon Says with me in the role of Simon was when my oldest daughter was three. We were at a large family gathering and she had talked some accommodating aunt or cousin into letting her play the “mom” while they played the “child.” Things went south quickly.
The “child” was immediately sent to time out, and told things like, “That’s it. I have had enough,” And “You sit here until I say you can get up, do you understand me?” The stunned “child” could barely keep from laughing, which only prompted more lectures, a lot of finger pointing (I felt that was a bit over dramatized) and a reminder that it was not “yes,” it was “yes ma’am.”
It was like watching a movie that looked familiar, but that I couldn’t quite place. Then it dawned on me. That was me. She was being me – and doing it quite well. She couldn’t put on her own pants, but apparently she was a master impressionist.
While it was funny at first, after a few minutes of watching a three-year old play the part of a stressed out, overworked parent, it got kind of real. I mean, this was her go-to for mother impressions. Not reading a book, or playing at the park, or cuddling on the couch, or any one of the other million amazing mom things that I was sure I did every day – but putting her kid in time out while muttering things under her breath and waving her hands around a lot.
The scary truth is that our kids are watching. Always. And even more so they’re learning. Over the years, I’ve laughed with friends as we’ve one-by-one learned that our language isn’t quite as pristine as we would like to think when a toddler drops an expletive that is not only correctly timed, but said in perfect context. Or we’ve sighed in exasperation as we’ve heard our mothers’ voices coming out of our own mouths, usually with fewer expletives, but showing the same learned behaviors and responses.
But that’s the eternal question, isn’t it? Nature vs. nurture. How much of our children’s personality is just pre-programmed and how much is ongoing code that is being written by the environment we provide?
I don’t think there is an absolute answer to that question. When I look at my kids, I know for a fact that there are elements of who they are that are theirs and theirs alone. They have depths that I cannot fathom and traits that I cannot comprehend.
But at the same time, the opportunity to observe my children over the years – to watch them as they handle frustration, anger, happiness, stress and a myriad of other emotions and situations – has been one of the most frightening and wonderful reflection into my own behaviors and personality.
When my girls were born, particularly the last two, everyone, and I mean everyone, said how much they looked like their father. And it was true. But as they’ve grown and we’ve all spent way too much time together, we now go places and people stare in wonder at how much they look like me – or even crazier, how much we all look alike. This, for the record, is entirely untrue. Sure, there are hints of similarity. There are shared jawlines and a certain tilt of the nose. But exact replicas we are not.
But what we lack in identical features, we more than make up for in identical bad jokes and horrible puns. We form our own little flash mob when certain songs come on. We make similar expressions and we all talk way too loudly. More and more, we have developed a certain way of being together. We do “bits” (we all think that we are hilariously funny), we tease and encourage and lecture and hug and roll our eyes. The result is a dance that weaves and flows and involves all of us in seamless symmetry of action and behavior.
But we also reflect less-than-ideal traits, as well. I watch my oldest daughter get overwhelmed when there’s too much chaos – just like I do. I watch my middle daughter get tense, just like her older sister. And I watch my youngest go into shut down mode, just like the sister above her. It’s a chain reaction, make no mistake.
The scary part is, that as the mom/boss/Evil Queen of this operation, I’m the one that starts the chain reaction. And sure, it’s funny to see a toddler do a toddler-sized impression of my crazy. It’s a bit more sobering to see a 16-year old do it; because by 16, it’s no longer play acting, it’s learned behavior. And while I love the way I am connected to my kids and I love the things we share, I want, more than anything, for them to be a better reflection of me.
I want them to show their children patience and grace. I want them to match anger with control and greet disappointment with determination. I want them to laugh more than they cry and not be afraid of anything. I want them to see the good in people, but know when to walk away. I want them to love themselves. I want them to feel whole.
I’ve realized over the years that if I want all of these things for them, I have to want them for myself first. Over the years, I’ve grown as my kids have. I’ve shifted my behaviors in an effort to shape theirs. I’ve tried (with only relative success) to not lecture about the lessons that I find most important, but to actually model them. I’ve got a long way to go – as do my kids. But the snowball is rolling; and as long as we’re all willing to learn from each other, I think we might just all turn out ok after all.