My sweet neighbor across the street and I often water our gardens in the morning, waving across to each other as we greet the day. On Monday Denise's grand-niece was visiting, dancing through the flowers while we chatted.
I met Zahira, a little two year old sprite, as she twirled by on the way to make sure her mother was still in the kitchen making breakfast. When she came back, I lifted her in my arms and she gave me a big hug. Standing cheek to cheek we watched as cars and trucks passed by.
"Look, Zahira," I said to her. "There's a big, white truck."
"Big, white truck," she parroted.
I pointed at another one. "And that truck is red."
"Red truck," Zahira echoed.
I turned to Denise. "I love this age...they are so curious and repeat everything we say."
Having been a teacher, she nodded. "Yes...we watch everything we say around Miss Z. She repeats everything!"
Zahira touched my cheeks, turning my face to hers. "Ladda..ladda...ladda!" she laughed, sticking her tongue in and out of her mouth rapidly.
I mirrored her and she giggled with delight.
"Baa....baa...baa!" Zahira beamed.
I did the same.
"Look!" she said, pointing. "Truck coming!"
"Yes, a big truck's coming!" I replied, easily flowing into "Mommy speak."
Zahira and I had a wonderful visit, echoing each other, until it was time for me to go back home.
As I crossed the street, it dawned on me how much young children mirror their parents and caretakers. For more than twenty years I have taught pre-school aged little ones and have learned by experience the old adage: "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
But we all know this to be true....don't we?
While working at Greenwood Elementary, I would occasionally have a student teacher during the fall semester. After six weeks or so, I would say, "If I want to know what I'm really like as a their teacher, I have one of the kids go up and instruct calendar time in the morning."
Sure enough, when I asked one of my first graders to take over for me, he or she would use the same inflections that I did, the same order of events, and even sit on my stool in a similar manner as I did, hooking one foot over the rungs. It was often hilarious to watch a smaller incarnation of myself teach the class and, if the child who was teaching had a good sense of humor, I would sit at his or her desk and behave like they often did. We all had a great time looking in the proverbial mirror of how we appear to others.
But sometimes what can be seen in the mirror is not always funny.
A few weeks ago, I met a woman who is pregnant with a little boy, due in a few weeks. I asked if it was her first and she said, "No...I have a three year old daughter. And it's a good thing my husband can say, 'No' to her because I sure can't."
I lifted a brow.
"We were at the store the other day and she asked for candy in such a cute voice, what could I do?" the woman said. "I give her whatever she wants."
"You know someday a teacher will have to deal with your kid," I said, recalling the myriad of spoiled children who had passed in and out of my classroom.
"Good," she said, grinning. "Let her deal with it....because I don't want to."
I wanted to say, "Your choice not to parent is one of the reasons I left teaching!" But of course I did not. Still, it was difficult not to regale her on the long, exhausting days of setting boundaries for kids who had no idea what healthy limits were, let alone consequences. Just when I'd get them used to the calm, structured environment, there would be a long weekend or a holiday, and many of the kids would come back re-wired by their home environment, so I had to spend a couple of days getting them back on task.
But, instead of rebuking the woman, I told her, "Well, you're going to reap that when she's sixteen and wants a car....wants a phone...wants whatever she wants and expects you to give it to her."
"Oh, I know," the woman said. "But I don't care."
Spending time with Zahira this week reminded me of the very tender, very open spaces within a young child's heart and mind. They are little sponges, soaking in everything they see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and most importantly, infer. The right words may not be available to them yet, but little ones know when they are surrounded by love, anger, confusion, joy, hypocrisy, and even complacency.
And then they mirror what they have experienced.
Yes, nature has a lot to say in how a child evolves. But how we raise our children, how we speak and how we behave around them teach them much more than we realize. The home environment, the school setting, and even the people we surround ourselves with teach our children by osmosis.
My friend, Barb, has told me that I'm a child magnet. She's right...no matter where I go, little ones try to get my attention. They stop and stare at me with wide eyes. They giggle. They engage me in conversation. Barb says this is because I mirror them with love. And I try to do that as much as possible, most recently with my new friend, Zahira, for I know that I am revealing to them who I am just as much as I may be mirroring who they are.
As my teaching friends head back to school this week, my thoughts are with them all. May they be blessed with wonderful parents who love and nurture their children with love and clarity. May they find renewed enthusiasm for the gift of sharing knowledge with those in their care.
May they be a mirror of love and respect for their students.
And may they be mirrored with love and respect in return.