A child-friendly traffic jam. Photo by danielspils via Flickr
I like to tell myself that I’ve worked pretty hard to make sure my kid knows some fundamental rules about life, especially that golden oldie about treating others the way you would like to be treated. Since it appears that my sarcasm is genetic, we talk often about how the things we say make other people feel, and we talk a lot about bullies. But, then, what happens when you realize that your kid was actually listening, and that by the beginning of first grade they’ve turned out to be a better person than you?
Let me start by saying that I might have some anger issues related to driving. Let’s just call it occasional, bad-driver-induced Tourette’s. I first realized that this could present a problem when my son Luca was about 2 years old, and I caught him re-enacting a scenario from earlier that day with his toy cars. Hearing my own exact inflection of “SERIOUSLY?!” (and a few other choice words) was so remarkable from his toddler mouth that I would have been genuinely impressed with his enunciation if I hadn’t felt so guilty. It was the cutest road rage ever.
While I’ve made some progress since then in replacing less child-appropriate exclamations with phrases like “Mother Hubbard” and last-minute saves like “shiitake,” there are apparently a few things I haven’t learned yet.
The other day, I got cut off by some idiot. “IDIOT!” I shouted as I hit the brakes.
“Mommy!” Luca chided from the back seat. “Idiot is a bad word! It makes people feel bad in their hearts.” (Yes, that’s really what he said.)
For a split second, I thought about trying to defend myself, or to invoke my because-I-said-so parental immunity. Instead I took a deep breath and decided to bite the bullet. “I’m sorry, Luca. I shouldn’t have said idiot. You’re right. It’s a word that makes people feel…”
But Luca wasn’t listening to me. The car that had cut us off had changed lanes, and he was looking at the driver as we passed them. “MOMMY!”
“That’s an old man! Look at him, mommy. Why did you do that? You can’t yell at old people. What if he heard you? What if you hurt him in his old heart?”
All I could do was admit that I had gotten angry, and that I was sorry. That I would have to try harder not to yell at other drivers — especially old people. I had taught my kid right from wrong, and he had listened. Shit.
Clearly, I’m a terrible person. I sure as hell felt like one in that moment. Bad driver or not, I yelled at an old man. Looking back at it afterwards, I was very glad I had apologized — especially because Luca went on to tell everyone we came into contact with over the next two days (including his teachers and my parents) that “mommy yelled at an old man.”
Eventually I decided that instead of hoping it disappeared into the abyss of a 6-year-old’s mind, I would talk to him about it. It wasn’t just to reassure myself that he hadn’t lost all respect for me as a parent. It was something else.
Trying to be a perfect parent has never really been my thing. I try to settle for being honest. The idea that kids learn by example used to terrify me, particularly in moments like this. But then I figured out that what you do after you act like a jackass is even more important than the fact that you acted like a jackass.
In other words, my kid doesn’t just learn to copy my mistakes — he’s watching to see how I handle them, and that’s how he will learn to handle his own. If he never sees me screw up, he’ll have no point of reference for when it’s his turn. Batman’s dad, after all, said it way better than I ever could: We fall so we can learn how to get back up, right? I like knowing that I’m showing Luca how to get back up. He’s definitely going to get a lot of practice. ■