Saturday, July 12, 2008

Parents, know that your kids are watching

I happen to be the mother of a child who loves to write. She's 13 and spends a couple of hours each day doing some sort of writing: short stories, poems, blog entries, essays. She's even completed a few chapters of a book.
When most kids were asking for iPods, she asked for a copy of the "AP Stylebook," an indispensable tool for serious writers.
She occasionally submits her work to competitions. In the past couple of years, she's won cash prizes, trips, medals and even a bonsai tree. I'm sure if she'd known about the essay contest to win almost-impossible-to-get tickets to a Hannah Montana concert, she most certainly would have entered. And she would have lost.
The child who won was a 6-year-old girl who wrote a heart-rending paragraph about how her father had been killed in Iraq. Gosh, who wouldn't want that child to win? After all, she and her family had been through hell and if this prize could do a little to distract them from their pain, then good for them.
There was one problem, however. The whole thing was a lie. Her father didn't die in Iraq. He was alive and well in another town. The whole scam started to fall apart when the winner was surprised with a Hannah Montana makeover at a kid's boutique in her hometown of Garland, Texas. I don't think her mom expected camera crews and when they started asking questions about the essay, she first tried to act like it was, oh, too painful to talk about.
When she was finally confronted with irrefutable evidence of the deception she tried to quibble, saying "We never said this was a true story. We do essays all the time. My daughter does essays at school all the time. It never did say it had to be true." Well, duh.
I ran the scenario past my daughter, Rachel. Maybe I'd missed something here. Maybe there was a way to justify this deception.
Nope, not in Rachel's eyes. She was disgusted by the whole thing and sad for the girl. Her take was, "If it's not true, its not an essay. It's a short story. No way should they win anything. What's worse, that little girl has been exposed to nationwide scrutiny and she and her mom have been shown to be a liars and cheats. All for a few concert tickets. How on earth does a kid recover from something like that?"
Good question. I don't know the answer.
One thing my mother taught me, long before I had children of my own, was that kids learn far more from watching than they do from listening. When you are kind to a stranger, your kids are watching. When a healthy mom parks in a handicapped parking spot, her kids see that, too. When a dad lies to get an undeserved refund his children are right there, taking it all in.
Years ago, a mother and daughter came into my resale clothing store. They were shopping for a prom dress, and the girl soon spotted the perfect one. I happened to be working nearby as they discussed the dress. The daughter bemoaned the fact that she'd only be able to wear it one time. The mother told her not to worry. They could always bring it back after the dance. That certainly caught my attention.
When they checked out, I made sure they were aware of the return policy, that the tags had to be attached for us to take an item back. Sure enough, a week later they showed up to return the dress. Of course there were no tags and there was a suspicious spot on the front that was probably punch.
When I declined to take the dress back, the mother launched into a monumental hissy fit, the kind that I'm sure had served her well many times before. I let her go on for a bit, then looked her in the eye and softly said, "I know what you did. You should be ashamed."
The mom gasped, snapped her mouth shut and scurried out of the shop. I sometimes wonder what became of that daughter. She was watching.
Just like that child in Texas was watching as her mother was humiliated and exposed as a liar. Watching as a glorious prize was taken from her and awarded to a runner-up.
Sad. So sad.
(First published Jan. 5, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

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