While out on Saturday errands with Mum this afternoon, I had the opportunity to witness three different parents modeling manners to their children, consciously or otherwise. In each case the parent was alone with one child; and in each case the child’s behavior mirrored the parent’s perfectly.
Our first errand was to pick up some take-out Chinese food for dinner. Mum negotiated the walk from the car to the restaurant and back like a good sport, though it was a bit of a rigmarole. On the way back out I had one hand full with the bag of food and the other one holding Mum’s, so I was happy to see a little girl, maybe ten or eleven years old, run up from behind us and hold the door open for us; I thanked her, and then heard her mother giving her quiet directions in a language I couldn’t readily recognize (Polish, perhaps, or Albanian?), after which she hurried back through the first door and opened the outer door as well. After thanking her again, I said to Mum in a voice loud enough for both mother and daughter to hear, “What a nice girl!”—at which she gave us a shy smile and skipped back to her mother’s side.
On to our favorite small supermarket, which is usually ridiculously crowded on the weekends; but Mum doesn’t mind because she likes seeing all the children and babies. We only needed a couple of things, and when I saw the long lines at the checkout counters, I half-regretted having come, but it was too late. So we took our place in a queue and I hoped that the ice cream wouldn’t melt before we were through.
Parallel to us in the next line over was a dad with his son, also ten or eleven, I would guess, and a shopping cart loaded to overflowing with provisions. The father had just realized that he had forgotten a particular item, and was describing it to his son so that he could go and look for it. He was a foreigner or a new immigrant, I guessed, since he was speaking quietly in French to his son, who listened attentively and then darted away with a will, as if on a treasure hunt. While he was gone, his father was continually looking around, clearly a bit worried that the boy might be getting lost. He returned eventually, brandishing a packet of pre-made guacamole, but it turned out to be not quite the right one. It was the spicy variety, and Papa had wanted the plain; close, but no cigar, as Andrew’s Grandpa Victor used to say. So off went the boy again, while the father resumed his alert waiting.
Now came a third parent and child into the mix: a father with a girl-child, perhaps eight or nine. He stepped up behind the man with the overloaded shopping cart, and said to the girl, in a rather-too-loud voice, so that everyone in the vicinity could hear: “This looks like the shortest line—only an hour to wait, maybe two; unless you would rather put this back.” It could be seen that the little girl was in a fine fury, and that the only item they were purchasing was the bar of chocolate that she was clutching. The father was clearly just about out of patience with her, but she, just as clearly, had no intention of giving it up.
Of course the soft-spoken man with the overloaded shopping cart told the girl’s father that they could go on ahead of him, since they had only the one item. Without a word of thanks that I could hear, and certainly without a “Say thank you to the nice man who has offered to let you go through first,” the girl’s father gave her a five-dollar bill and instructions on where to stand, told her that he would be waiting up front for her, and promptly disappeared. Now the boy’s father was not only looking round anxiously for his son but also feeling compelled to keep an eye on the girl, whose face was screwed up into a fixed scowl, and brow beetled into a dark thundercloud.
The boy came back, this time with two packets of guacamole. Bingo! One was the right one, but the other needed to be returned, and since it was going to be a few minutes more before their turn came, Papa gave him one last errand to run. Off he went, without a murmur of complaint. Meanwhile Sulky Susan was waiting impatiently to get to the top of the line, and, without anyone on whom to vent her spleen, was getting furiouser and furiouser. Well before the checkout clerk had finished with the shopper in front of her, she was leaning in with both elbows on the counter, shoving her purchase and her money in front of him and scowling even more ferociously. The clerk was keeping his temper by studiously ignoring her, which, of course, only infuriated her still further. Dad was still nowhere to be seen, probably taking long draughts on a cigarette out in the parking lot.
At last the boy returned triumphant, bearing with him the special box of hot-chocolate preparation that his father had described. Rewarded with a loving high five from Papa, he took his place beside the cart just as they got to the top of the line. I didn’t see the reunion of father number two and darling daughter. Mum and I had got to the top of the line ourselves, and Mum had waited uncomplainingly all that time, just watching the world go by.
A couple of additional pieces of information, which may or may not be pertinent here: the French-speaking father and son were black, while the father-daughter duo were white Americans, the little girl a blonde who might have been pretty if it hadn’t been for the grimace, which made her look like a gargoyle.
If someone had offered me a place ahead of him in that long line today, I would have thanked him profusely and instructed my child to do the same. However, if she had been behaving as that girl was, I might have said, “Thanks a lot, it’s very kind of you, but I think we’ll wait our turn.” That would have modeled politeness and fair play, and might even have made her ask herself whether she really wanted that chocolate bar after all. But surely a thinking American could also have considered the recent history of his or her black compatriots being relegated to the back—the back of the line, of the class, of the bus—while whites took their place in front as a matter of course. What kind of manners was that father modeling to his child, who was likely to grow up taking her (white) privilege for granted, pouting her way to the top, and quite certain all the while that she was the one being hard done by.