Having a small child in the house can be rather like living in a place wired with closed-circuit television.
After a while you forget that the machine is recording, constantly watching and noting what everyone is doing.
But then comes the day when the tapes are played back, and — ouch! — everyone sees what they look like to the small, unwinking camera’s eye.
This has come up again in our household now that the youngest member is approaching the age of 4. Last fall she was still inventing babyish words; this fall she’s speaking in subordinate clauses. Last September she toddled around obliviously while the older children packed lunchboxes and backpacks. This September she’s taken to striking dignified poses, complete with furrowed brow, to signify her new stature as a “schoolgirl.”
And now, years after installing her Small Child CCTV, she’s started playing us back at ourselves with amusing, wince-making accuracy.
Take the subject of chores. A year ago we instituted a system wherein the four older children rotate through four domestic tasks. So if, for instance, it’s Week One, the eldest sets the table, the second oldest empties the clean dishwasher, the third child vacuums the kitchen floor and the second youngest scrubs the pots. In Week Two, the eldest empties the dishwasher; the second oldest vacuums the floor, and so on.
This works pretty well. Every evening, someone consults the chart, shouts out who is responsible for which tedious job, and everyone behaves … Wait, let’s just roll the SC-CCTV, shall we?
INT: Messy kitchen. Children milling around after dinner.
Youngest Child (hopefully): “Do I need to empty the dishwasher?”
Eldest Child (fondly): “No, sweetie, don’t worry. You’re just little. You don’t have to do work yet.”
Youngest (in loud stage whisper): “Tell me I have to do the dishwasher.”
Eldest (amused): “Okay then. You need to do the dishwasher.”
Youngest (slouching): “Aw, maaaaannnnn! Do I have to?”
I thought that was pretty amusing. See? I lectured the children, she watches everything you’re doing. You are teaching her how to behave, and what to expect from others. Better make sure you’re setting a good example for youth.
A few days later, the SC-CCTV episode forgotten, I was shooing children out of the kitchen towards the various places they do their homework. Off they went, one after another, each groaning beneath a backpack heavier than the one before.
Pretty soon I was alone in the kitchen with the radio, dinner preparations and the smallest child. She seated herself at the table with a pencil and a bit of newsprint, folded her hands in her lap and looked up at me pertly.
“What about my homework?”
“Aw, sweetheart. Don’t worry. Lucky you; you don’t have homework yet.”
A faint shadow of exasperation crossed her pretty brow. “Mummy, you need to tell me to do my homework.”
“Very well,” I said, fatally forgetting the always-on SC-CCTV, “please do your homework.”
A moment later she announced: “I’ve done my homework.”
“Wonderful!” I gushed, in the phony self-esteem-promoting tones adults use when they’re not really paying attention.
She looked at me, surprised.
“Mummy,” she said, “You’re supposed to say, ‘No, no, that’s wrong, do it again!’”
Examiner Columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of the Wall Street Journal. Her Examiner column appears on Thursday.