One of the cutest things I have overheard this week (and with three small kids at the farm, there’s lots of cute) was little Anésio learning to shout “Ayyyi!” in proper cowboy style at the correct crescendos of a musica serteneja song. As of yesterday Anésio (age 2)–god love him–digs this art form that involves shouting but is still learning the nuances of rhythm. I’ve seen this sort of tutorial before whether it’s the Dominican parents teaching their six year-olds to get down on a dance floor or Mainer parents teaching kids to contra dance. Cute, absolutely. There’s also something absolutely natural and human. You can pack them full of lessons and clubs and team sports but oddly enough they’re going to turn into little copies of you, whether you like it or not. It is what they are hard-wired to do.
Every day I turn into more of an amalgamation of my parents. I am even more aware of it now that I have changed my context in major ways and yet some things remain unchanged. I am a world-traveller (my dad) who dreams of composting for her plants and canning the fruits of her labor (my mom). I gregariously adore meeting everyone and figuring out a way to communicate with them (mom) and believe that I can figure out how to do anything if I can just find an instruction manual somewhere online (dad). I hoard dry goods in jars and rags for re-use (mom) and odd computer parts (dad). See how this works? Want a kid to do something? Model the behavior. Want your kid to love music? Play it, all the time. Want your kid to be a good dancer? Boogie in the living room with your significant other. Want them to be bookworms? Don’t just read to them at night, read your own books too and tell them what you learned. Goes for bad behavior too–don’t want them to mouth back or yell? Watch when you raise your voice or how you respond to their tantrums. And for chrissakes, don’t complain that your kids don’t do well in social settings or adult gatherings if all you do is shelter them at home or expose them only to the company of other children.
See, here in Brazil kids are everywhere–they bring them to church and to other people’s homes uninvited. The kids run about, and are generally reprimanded, praised, and directed away from the sharp, pointy objects by any adult that’s present. Simple. No one worries about child care if invited somewhere; it’s assumed that if you went and invited both parents then, well of course, the kids will be coming too. Want to know what? These same kids also tend to be more respectful of adult conversations and more likely to respond to adult instruction than many of the American kids that I’ve seen raised by a solitary couple. I’ve seen kids snooze through throbbing latin beats, while American parents in the same room complain that it’s impossible to get their kids to sleep unless there’s absolute silence. What’s the difference? Beyond the quirks of individual children, I’d say that one set of kids is used to it, it’s the water in which they swim. Is it any wonder that actors’ kids become actors too, or that athletes beget athletes? It’s not just genetics, folks, our kids are watching and copying what they see.
“Do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” doesn’t work for kids. See, as they get older they watch just not your actions but the reasons for your behavior too. In my travels I have met few bullshit detectors more acute than the wit of your average eleven-year old. Give them a few minutes of honest conversation and they’ll ask some inquisitive questions that cut right through all those lies and excuses you tell yourself (assuming that you’re honest enough with them and yourselves to answer them truthfully). Want a great example? Watch Julia Sweeney’s monologue about having the Birds & Bees talk with her eight year-old. They’re smart little buggers, kids are, and they’re watching you.
So for now, Anésio is hooting like a cowboy when music comes on and turning any garden tool into a chainsaw with a big bbbbRRRZZZZZZ! Francielli (age 5) is starting to include my Portañol in her conversations–oops–and Luanna (age 4) paints the white walls just like her tía–sadly–with the gray enamel paint. They are what we teach, may be observant enough to notice just what it is that they’re learning from us.