virtual children by Scott Warnock

Worry not, your child’s foul behavior probably won’t transfer

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You don’t know nothin’ about raising kids, and then one day there’s a child in your house. Then another. For some, this familial accretion goes on for some time. What do you do? You stitch and paste some values together from somewhere – parents you’ve known, cartoons, strangers you meet on the bus — and off you go, bringing up humans.

Some ideas I decided were important early on were that my children would listen to me and my wife, be respectful, and get along peaceably with fellow house-dwellers. The reasons behind these beliefs are of course obvious (preserving sanity bubbles up to the top of the list), but when thinking it over, I realized that one of my strongest motivators had to do with transfer of learning.

You may be familiar with this concept from educational contexts: Something you do in situation A is then applicable to and works well in situation B. Easy to say, but devilishly elusive in practice. For instance, I’m a writing teacher, and students occasionally will write essays like champs in my classes and then walk into chemistry and turn in some tortured lab report that looks like they had to etch out the words on a cave wall. Under duress. I know there are logical reasons this happens and explain this to colleagues. The important thing is that I am well aware it is difficult to transfer learning from one setting to another.

Yet in terms of things like manners and personal interaction skills, I have believed — and this is reasonable of me, yes? — that if my children are nice in our home, they will transfer those behaviors to the rest of their lives. Inversely, if they act badly to me, my wife, and their siblings, they are setting up for themselves a terrible life of asocial misanthropic sociopathy.

So, there is this person who may or may not live in my house but shall remain nameless anyway. That person is often not nice to other people who live in that person’s house, which may or may not be my house. That person creates woe. That person is at the center of much discord. No, this is all too mild: That person can generate a seismic tremor of ill-will at breakfast the aftershocks of which cause the applesauce jar at dinner to topple over. Her/his eyes beam apathy, contempt, sometimes loathing, often accompanied by venomous ululations. Every dialogue has the potential to turn into a calliopean logomachy. Defenestration appears a reasonable response to it all.

Regardless of my actually proximity to this person, I often have feared a dim future for s/he. Dim, cramped work spaces, with silverfish. Firings. Arguments with traffic police and TSA officials. A slew of angry former roommates. Plates swept off tables at restaurants. Tweeting, vengeful ex-teammates. Neighborhood brawls.

It all seems so dismal. Worse, following a particular incendiary in-house battle, it must seem — to those who live with this person — crushingly inevitable.

But at the precipice of doom, this young person will return from a sleepover or trip to an adult’s workplace (which may or may not be mine) or multi-day vacation with a friend. Adults and other parents rave about this person’s manners, kindness, level of engagement. The word “sweet” appears. “Polite.” “Helpful.” “Friendly.” There are no stories about breakfasts filled with complaints over people crunching their cereal too loudly. No reports of screeching. The words “combative,” “oppositional,” “monstrous” do not appear.

Other parents seek this person out to watch their younger children, amazed at the level of responsibility. This person is described as a good role model, a pleasant kid, happy. A solid citizen.

Someone nice to be around.

I want to see these children of ours, whoever they are, be good to their parents because dammit we put so much time in with them that we deserve it. Children should respect their elders. But in the great metric of life that marks all of our comings and goings, the way children act to us behind the closed familiar doors of their safe homes may, shockingly, have little to do with anything about the rest of their lives. Despite our premonitions of future woe, they are probably going to be fine.

So our fears of an always-simmering existence for our defiant children may be greatly exaggerated. While it can be frustrating, I think it’s also liberating and humbling that our personal, day-to-day observations and evaluations of them may have nothing to do with who they really are — or who they will be.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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9 Responses to “Worry not, your child’s foul behavior probably won’t transfer”

  1. I just pushed a child out the door for school. It was ugly. You saved my morning. I drank my coffee, regained some sanity and laughed out loud at your blog. Misery does love company. Thanks Scott!

  2. LOL Scott! I just finished reading a daily journal entry of my own flesh and blood! How is it that every other parent tells me, “she is always so helpful and the first to thank me for every little thing…and blah, blah, blah…” but within ten minute of the return from the “Sleep-less Over” at her friend’s house….I am putting on my black and white ref attire and yelling, “Flag on the Play!”

    What keeps me hopeful, as a parent, is that this behavior is saved for me…which means she is in her comfort zone and expressing those frustrations where she feels she can do so without having another parent or friend judge her.

    Thank you for letting me know I am not alone out there!

  3. Another topic I can easily relate to thought the population of my house is much smaller. And again I can point to the amazing positive influence of the coaches and Scout leaders in my son’ s life for allaying this fear of mine for it was a Scout leader who told me that the way your child acts when you are not around is the more accurate measurement of your success as a parent.
    But I also try to instill the idea that we should not take family for granted or assume we can take out everything on them just because they are there, are family and have to take it because family is also one of the first places you learn that people cannot always be there for you.
    Thanks Scott!

  4. Very funny. And true. We’ve gradually come to understand that we get the best and worst from our children, and the rest of the world enjoys their stable, balanced, well-adjusted, mature, compassionate consistency.

    That’ll do.

  5. Your certain child has been at my house many times – alright, almost everyday and I can assure you that she/he is manner friendly, helpful and respectful……except when she clobbers her younger sibling because he is trying to be funnier than her.

  6. Hey Scott, really cool column … The dynamic works the other way as well. I remember thinking my parents were relentlessly negative … and then my college roommate, who is one of the best judges of character I know, comes to my house and meets them several times and has a blast each time …

    Months later, when there was no pressure to be polite, etc., he tells me how great my parents are and then literally argues with me when I moan and groan … That was the day I started to see my parents differently ….

  7. OK Man. I’ll move out on Friday. Jeez!!!

  8. Until you wrote, “this young person” I thought you were writing about yourself.

    Your manners are pretty good outside of the house/family, too…

  9. We all destroy the ones we love most…….

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