I lived in Nepal for a couple of years, taking care of eighteen trafficked children. I figured it was a good lesson in being a parent.
It wasn't. Not in the way I expected, at least.
My first indication came when a buddy of mine, who has kids, came out to visit. He watched the children playing around me, and he asked me if they imitated me. I told him not really.
"That's good," he said, nodding thoughtfully. "When you have your own kids, they imitate you. Like, literally imitate you. It's like having a little 3-D mirror in your house, watching yourself." He paused. "It's kind of a nightmare, actually."
I nodded politely. At the time I had no intention of ever getting married, let alone having children, so I gave it about as much thought as I would have if he was giving me instructions on how to build my own television.
Looking back, I wish he had taken me by the shoulders and glared at me when he'd said it. I wish he had used the word "literally," and said it "LIT-ER-AL-LY!" like people do when they want you to know that they are using the word "literally" correctly.
Because let me tell you something, my non-kid-having friends:
Kids imitate what you say.
My son Finn, for example, is 3 and a half years old. He has recently taken to giving me time-outs.
The time-outs seem less than justified. Sometimes they come when I won't let him have cupcakes for breakfast (that's cupcakes plural) or when I've been "disobedient" by telling him that he's not allowed to turn on the TV at 6 a.m.
"You get a time-out, daddy!" he'll say. His little eyebrows will furrow, his finger will wag at me and his whole face seems to take the shape of a V.
My disputing the time-out (and questioning his authority to issue such a time-out) only seems to strengthen his resolve. He'll insist that "Yes-you-DO-have-a-time-out-daddy!" Then he'll advise me that I'm only making matters worse by talking back to him.
Sometimes he points out that this would be a good time to say sorry before I make it any worse for myself.
The thing is, by pre-empting me, he's made it all the harder for me to give him a time-out. I tried to do that once and he informed me, matter-of-factly, that he said it first.
3 and a half years old.
Are you hearing this, friends-with-no-children?
It comes as no surprise that children are impressionable. It took having children to understand just how impressionable, though. And what a powerful thing "impressionable" is.
As we get older and we realize how much we are like our father or mother, we debate the role of genetics. But this isn't genes. Kids grow up listening to us. They imitate us because that's who's around. Little boys pretend to be firemen and postmen but those are just games, and they know it. The only ambition they have -- the only ambition -- is to become older and stronger and wiser.
In short, they want to be their fathers (as I imagine girls want to be their mothers). They want the authority that their fathers have. They are modeling themselves after us.
In nature, this is called imprinting -- it's why ducklings that hatch and see a corgi will follow that corgi around as they would their own mother.
And it's why this role of fatherhood needs to be taken a lot more seriously in this country.
But as I cast all those stones, what's my role as a father? How seriously am I taking it?
I've cursed in front of Finn before when I hurt myself, or just out of frustration. I've raised my voice at him. I've clearly shaken my finger at him. What must that look like, a huge father getting in his face? I've lost my temper before, and though I've never struck him I have little doubt that he takes all this in and learns that if you're strong and loud then you get your way. So he tries to be strong and loud right back, because that's what I've just taught him to do, without him even really knowing what's happened.
My son has imprinted on me, and I shape him with my behavior in a time when his mind is hard-wiring all this information on what it is to be a man.
We have the power to shape another human being. That's a bit scary.
But Finn also makes jokes. Dumb jokes, perhaps, but no dumber than mine. He also reminds me how strong I am and how handsome my hair is. (It is not.) Last week, after I poured him a glass of milk, he said "Great job, daddy!"
In short, he's a little 3-D mirror of me.
He imprints on me even though I'm not his favorite parent. He chooses his mother at every turn. (Worse, it seems that I'm not even in second place anymore -- that honor now goes to an imaginary friend named "Pretend Daddy.")
Behaviors are hard to change. But here's one worth working on: helping to create a proud, compassionate, loving human being who understands right and wrong and the importance of discipline. Because that person will choose to help others or he won't. He'll choose to serve the poor or he won't. He'll choose to respect women or he won't.
Those decisions are being made in him right now. And I'm going to help him make them.
I'd like to see Pretend Daddy try that.
Follow Conor Grennan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/conorgrennan