A history I am reading describes the childhood version of a certain future leader in the Middle East as “shopping for the qualities of greatness, trying on attributes and opinions” in his quest to become great himself. Mistaking the trees for the forest, he spent much of his youth mimicking great leaders he observed, knowing them to be world changers but nonplussed as to why. At one point, the youth’s “obsession with great men must have seemed comical, especially when he imitated Gandhi by sitting under a tree, pretending he didn’t want to eat, or dressing in an apron and leading a goat.”
I enjoy similar comedy at home, courtesy of my children, when my two-year-old does her hair up like Frozen’s Queen Elsa and systematically takes dinner and drink orders on a pad of pale green Post-it notes, before slaving away at her toy kitchenette. Whether she equates greatness with the Snow Queen, waitressing, or her mom’s mad skills at keeping a family well fed, it is too early to say.
Meanwhile my son may be upstairs for curiously long stretches at the same moment that I am finally free to play. When I find him sitting on the floor by his bed studying a discarded 2014 calendar featuring Civil War paintings by Mort Künstler, he may tell me, “Sorry, Dad, I wish I could, but I’m busy. I have to work.” I know whom he is imitating. My own home office, like his, is a short walk from my bed, and the words are too familiar.
It is likely that in mimicking others my kids (and yours) are not usually striving for greatness or even to appear more mature, but only for something to do. They are bored, and this seems good enough for their decidedly not-bored parents, so why not give it a go? They have observed that when work is finished or unproductive, it is time to play; so when play is finished or no longer fun, it is time to work. But were a fun friend or aunt or grandparent to ring our doorbell they would abandon their quest faster than Dory the fish.
That they would choose to imitate us in their hour of boredom says something about what they perceive to be the most distinguishing features of a working grown-up, or at least of their working parents. For my kids, there could not be a greater difference in the fun factors of mimicking mom and dad and playing with their top 25 toys or games. If they get to the point of mimicking us, this means they have already trekked far into a grim desert in search of entertainment. That is why whatever green sprig of entertainment they pluck from the barren sands is so revealing.
The mirage that crystallizes out of imagination’s dry heat will not be just any old feature they have observed of mom working or dad working–but a defining feature. It may not constitute the whole picture, but it is a bold, broad stroke on the canvas.
Looking back at the canvas of my own father’s work profile, I find that from age five to 18, if I woke before the sun, I could find him in his family room chair starting each work day in Scripture and prayer. He always called my mother from work to say hello, and again to give his ETA for dinner. He frequently apologized for having to work so much, without once complaining (at least to his kids) that he did. He turned off work at home, breaking for baseball, kickball, and wild vacations. If he couldn’t turn work off, he punted it until after bedtime. Retreating to the attic of our Quantico apartment building, he would study in the Virginia heat long after his family had gone to sleep, where he would take naps on the floor, occasionally awaking to the tickling of an inquisitive cockroach.
The defining strokes on my dad’s canvas bear repeating, and I try to copy them to my own, even as my kids begin to copy mine to theirs. What is certain is that they are predisposed to copy whatever they find, so as they go “shopping for the qualities of greatness, trying on attributes and opinions,” their dad’s most important work is to keep the shop clean.