The Ancient Parental Curse

When I was growing up, I remember a couple occasions when I overheard a parent (usually but not always a mother), completely flummoxed by her child’s bad behavior or stubbornness, bestow upon the beloved offspring the curse, “One day you will have a child just like you!” In my childhood memories this pronouncement was even more dire than the dreaded Full Name Invocation. Variations existed (“I hope you have a son/daughter just like you”), but the sentiment was the same and tended to fall on equally deaf ears at the time. However, fifteen, twenty, or thirty years down the line when the adult who once brought forth this ancient parental curse had children of his or her own, those words always seemed to come back and ring absolutely.

As the inevitable result of both nature and nurture we are both blessed and cursed to see ourselves in our children. Even from a very young age, they pick up everything from our distinctive facial expressions to our general temperaments. If my parents verbalized the ancient parental curse in my direction when I was a child, I have no memory of it, but as William becomes less of a baby and more of a toddler, I cannot help but see some traits I treasure in myself and others I know can cause problems down the road.

I’m glad he likes being around people, loves books, and is incredibly responsive to music (these last two are at least as much Beth’s doing as mine, but they’re reasons I fell in love with her, so three cheers for natural selection). The fact that he seldom gets too worked up over surprises (loud noises), recovers quickly from unpleasant shocks (vaccinations), and is increasingly self-entertaining makes him pretty easy to parent most of the time. I’m not worried about him in a big picture sense. Even if the full wrath of the ancient parental curse falls on us, Beth and I were both pretty well-behaved kids (my younger siblings might disagree on some of the finer points of this, but I’m the eldest and therefore know better than they do. *smirk*), and while we both had some struggles with finding peers who shared our geeky interests, we found our way in the end.

What potential problems can I possibly see in a 13-month-old? Only ones I myself had.

First, William solves problems in his own way rather than the way people expect him to solve them.When we were trying to get him to roll over for the first time people told us the trick of it was to put a toy up and near his head, just out of reach. The baby would tilt and stretch and reeeeach…and suddenly s/he would be on belly instead of back. Ta da! We tried this with William, and it even seemed initially that this might work. But no. He figured out that we always put him on a blanket for this, and while he couldn’t reach the toy, the toy was also on the blanket. A handful of blanket and a tug, and voila – the toy was in his hand and the official milestone remained unachieved.

Second, while he likes praise and positive reinforcement when he gets it, he ain’t no rat willing to hit a feeder bar to get it. Recently (this morning, in fact), his daycare teachers were trying to show Beth that William had started to figure out how to match the shapes of blocks with the holes in the box they were meant to fit through. They demonstrated this task to him and then emptied out the box and gave him a chance to try it for himself. Almost without hesitation William figured out how to open the box and proceeded to scoop the shape blocks into the box with both hands. He completed the demonstrated task, just not in a way that involved proving that he could now match shapes.

I don’t doubt that his teachers were telling the truth, and Beth and I both find this kind of behavior hilarious, but this is the sort of child we have on our hands. It comes with some perils, as I know all too well from my own experience. When I was in school I hated anything that I felt made a task more difficult or time-consuming than it needed to be. Why show every step of my work when doing a math problem? I could multiply and divide small numbers in my head almost flawlessly, so why did I have to show that 9 x 9 = 81 every single time, much less 9 + 9 = 18 (*eyeroll*)? Diagramming sentences? That was like cutting open a cat and splaying its guts all over the table with little labels. It missed the essence of the cat as a living thing that curled up on your lap and purred. Like a cat, the written word didn’t need dissection to communicate its intention, to be understood for what it was.

When I encountered situations like these I stubbornly refused to do them in spite of dire pronouncements about how it would affect my grades, a habit that probably gave a number of my teachers a few extra grey hairs. I think I can verbalize now what no one seemed able to adequately explain to me as a child. We show our work in math to help our teachers, so they can tell whether we actually understand how to solve the problem. Because the mistake that got us the right answer today will betray us horribly tomorrow. Also, it is a good habit to get into because while basic math is easy and hard to screw up, advanced mathematics involve too many variables to keep in the mind all at once and a single mistake along the way can render hours of work wasted. If you have every step written out you might save yourself from having to do the whole problem from scratch. A few timely strokes of a pencil could save you hours of work.

I can only hope I’ll be able to explain these things in a way a child will understand, because I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll eventually need to do exactly that.

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