I don’t take pride in the meanness and cowardice I displayed as a child: spreading cruel and false gossip about a blameless classmate, allowing another child to take the punishment I provoked, mercilessly tormenting a teacher. Indeed, I am ashamed of them. But I’m a little surprised by my behavior. I was generally considered a “nice” child, well behaved and eager to please. But there you have it: even a nice child can be a shit.
This truth was brought home, literally, when I had my own children. My beautiful sunny babies, innocence and sweetness incarnate, occasionally behaved in unkind ways. It shocked me, and my moral outrage made me, at least superficially, work on being a better model. My children’s bad behavior made me a better person.
In part this was because children are the best critics, observant and eager to point out hypocrisy, so castigating them for their misdeeds inevitably provoked a fusillade of defensive counter-accusations (“But you do it, Mommy”). I acted like a good person—and sometimes it was indeed just an act—to make myself appear blameless. In part it was because I was sincerely shocked by their behavior and wanted them to be better people, and if it meant I too had to be a better person, then so be it.
The odd outcome of this whole exercise is that my children actually think I’m exemplary—and a little naive. Or at least, that’s what they say. They’re careful about what they tell me, because they think I can’t take the brutal truth. And they discourage me from reading certain books and seeing certain movies for the same reason. Their father, who is naturally a nicer person, they see as a little naughty. Weird, huh?