Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Teach Your Children Well

So there I was, enjoying a relaxing day at the tiny, rustic (super-unpretentious) beach club to which I belong. I was lounging peacefully on the floating trampoline that's positioned between two tethered docks and on the outer reaches of the club's swimming area. Across the pond, a state park began to fill up with Sunday beachgoers, music skimmed across the water in beats and bass notes, canoes and kayaks and paddleboards glided by, neighbors waved hello and commented on the stunning late-summer weather.

An large inflatable rowboat appeared close by, with what seemed to be a family of five aboard: father rowing methodically, mother in a large-brimmed straw hat, three children. As they closed in on one of the club's docks, the oldest child, a son, climbed up the side of the inflatable and propelled himself over the edge into the water. Curious, I sat up to watch what would become a stunning display of audacity, and one that I'm still trying to make sense of.

The boy was followed into the water by a girl, who looked to be the middle child, and the two kids promptly swam to the ladder attached to our dock. Climbing onto the dock, they were immediately grossed out by the seagull droppings (and one dead fish) that had appropriately discouraged anyone from the club from using the raft that day. These two were ready, though; as if they'd anticipated this part of the adventure, they were wearing water shoes, and they clambered onto the dock and proceeded to tiptoe about (avoiding, I supposed, the largest piles of guano) before jumping off the raft. I moved my scowl back and forth between these two cute kids diving and jumping, climbing the ladder and dancing around, and their parents, blithely watching their children, offering encouragement and Olympic-worthy cheers for each dive.

Just when I thought I was completely flummoxed by this family's blatant disregard for what is club property (and I will add here, it is very obvious that the club is "members only"), the mother removed her hat and lowered herself into the water. She swam over to the raft, but refused to climb aboard, probably because she was barefoot. The kids dutifully, and almost as if on cue, jumped one last time into the water. The three began swimming toward the trampoline as the father rowed off with the smallest child. Yep, he rowed away. Now, from years of lifeguarding, my brain and body automatically commit themselves to safety concerns when I sense them. These kids were probably eight and six, tops. They could swim, I knew. But from the dock to the tramp? I wasn't sure. And then what? The dad has rowed back across the water.

As they neared, the mother called out to me, "Would you mind if they jump on the trampoline?" She'd just prepped her kids for what she must have known would be my response by saying, "She doesn't look happy." Maybe she didn't think I heard that part. She began treading water, as did her kids, while she waited for my reply. Suffice it to say, between my consternation, my frustration, and my indignation, I wasn't particularly helpful or welcoming. I admit that. I asked her if she'd like to pay part of my membership fee. She said "Sure!" like I was asking her if she wanted a piece of gum. I next went the liability route (which is absolutely correct and true - as a club it would be financially risky to take on the responsibility of anyone beyond our members and their invited guests). She continued to wait, perhaps for my "real" answer. I finally told her that even if I personally had no problem with them using the club's property (I did, though), I am a member who, in the end, must answer to my fellow members and our Directors, who assume that each of us will uphold the rules and regulations of the club.

She slowly, very slowly, began swimming back across the lake, her kids trailing her, their voices trailing back across the water to me as the son asked, "Does that mean 'no?'" "It means 'no,'" she said disdainfully, and when the boy said, "That lady wasn't very nice," she answered emphatically, "She wasn't nice at all." About three quarters of the way back across the pond, the husband rowed over to them, and while I could not hear the entire conversation, the mother's whiny "That lady over there was rude" floated over to me on the wind. Soon enough, I went back to the beach, where I commiserated with other members who immediately reminded me that I was in the right.

I'm sure that to this family, I appeared unhappy, not nice, and rude. But what's more important is how they appeared to me, and to the other members: bold, audacious, contemptuous, ballsy, insolent, brazen, and just plain nervy. And what's infinitely more important than that are the lessons that these children have been, are being, taught: that rules don't apply to us; that if you don't get your way, it's the other person's fault; that private property is for public use; that your pleasure is more important that what is right or proper.

I firmly believe that most parents would be horrified if their children trespassed on someone else's property or used other people's things. I know that most children, actually, wouldn't dare go someplace that was clearly marked "private." I know plenty of kids who wouldn't dare to ask, even. If these kids were older, and on their own, I could easily understand their willingness to take the risk - it happens a lot at our little club.  But to witness this behavior as typical and established, to sense this family's expectation of entitlement, has caused me much distress.

As a teacher, I will remember this incident for a long time. These children will probably be sitting in our classrooms someday. And it will probably become our job to impart to them some lessons that their parents haven't (I'm reminded here of the former student who did no work, whose mother insisted we stay after with him, but then claimed that because he had a season pass at the local ski mountain and belonged to ski club, he couldn't make it to any of our extra help sessions). In the end, it will be only the kids who matter, and by modeling appropriate behaviors and establishing clear expectations, we just might make some headway. I have to firmly believe that, too.

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