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Life with Liz: What they learn

There is a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte, “Children Learn What They Live.” “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn. If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight. If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy. If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty. If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient. If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence. If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate. If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice. If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith. If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself. If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.”

When I was little, I had this on a small plaque in my bedroom. It was one of those things that I probably stared idly at while I was brushing my hair, or in a time out, or whatever. I truly didn’t think about what it said until years later, when I was getting ready to have my own kids, and in the course of baby preparation, I came across it again. At the time, I sat and read it, and was surprised how much of it was stored away in my subconscious, and as I started to make my way through my kids’ childhoods, I would frequently say to myself, “oh, I’m teaching him to fight” when I found myself being hostile, or “I’m teaching him shame” when I caught myself guilt tripping them.

It should be noted that I did not do the same thing when I was exhibiting the more positive characteristics, or maybe I just didn’t display them as much, but at any rate, now that we’re well into the teenage years, I am seeing the outcome of many of these lessons. For the most part, I like my sarcastic side, I think it’s one of my better qualities. However, when my own words and attitude get flipped and launched back at me by my sarcasm-clone A, well, surprisingly, a kid who lives with sarcasm … will become sarcastic! Who could have seen that one coming?

When I recently flipped out on E because of repeated careless spelling, the Wonderful Husband was quick to come to her defense. “I was a terrible speller, and I still think spelling is dumb,” he said, much to my dismay. After explaining to E that “genetic aversion to correct letter arrangement” wasn’t actually a thing, I also reminded her that she had a decent dose of my genes which would have counteracted it anyway.

It’s not all bad. Recently A did some challenging of authority that took a lot of guts on his part, and required a maturity well beyond his years. He did it in a respectful and polite manner and managed to behave better than some of the adults involved in the situation. While I was immensely proud of him, I was also a little flattered when people commented to me that they didn’t wonder where he got his gumption from. I don’t say that in a “bragging, my kid is awesome way,” I say that in a “phew, I may have actually taught him a skill that will serve him well in the long term, and I’m not a complete failure as a parent” way.

A long time ago, when I was a naive parent, I thought I could convince my kids that they could talk to me about anything, and I wouldn’t get mad. One of the things that I’ve learned is that I’m going to get mad, no matter how much I don’t want to, but my kids have learned that the mad I get when they tell me does not last nearly as long and is not nearly as severe as the mad that I get when I find something out from someone else that I should have found out from them, so we’ve compromised.

They preface it with “you’re going to get mad,” then I get mad, get it out of my system, and then we talk. I know I don’t always get all the details, but that’s OK. At least the channel of communication is opened.

Anyway, A had a “situation” that he wanted to talk about, and it involved him not necessarily having to do the right thing, but him feeling that he should anyway. We talked about how sometimes it’s obvious what the right thing to do is, and sometimes it’s a gray area. Sometimes the right thing for one person isn’t the right thing for another. Sometimes there are just so many layers to the onions, it’s hard to know which one actually makes you cry. Turns out, if children live with a stress case who agonizes over the smallest details and decisions, they will learn how to do that as well.

Turns out, A’s thought process and ultimate decision was just about what I’d have done in his situation. What was surprising was that the other two, who of course had been eavesdropping, both had completely different reactions and would have done things differently. When they both explained why they reacted differently, from their perspective, it made a lot of sense. So, how do I explain that even though they all essentially “lived” the same life, each of them took something different away from it? I don’t. I haven’t learned how that process works yet.

I used to worry so much about teaching them manners when they were little, right from wrong, the golden rule, all those little lessons that you can pick up just about any children’s book and find a lesson about. At the time, getting a “please” or a “thank you” seemed like one of the most impossible tasks in the world.

As usual, I had no idea how easy that was compared to praying that your angry teenager doesn’t use social media in a way that he will regret, or that your tween will manage to contain her anger over something she feels is “unfair” and not get a penalty for bad sportsmanship.

Or being reminded, when you ask why “we” waited until the last minute to do a complicated assignment, that you’re no stranger to the last minute yourself. I’ve realized that what they’ve learned over the years is that the tools exist. How they use them, well, that’s up to them to figure out, and I’ve got to learn to let them.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.