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The sincerest form of something or other

By Lawrence Henry
web posted July 9, 2001

My boy Joe, 21 months, and I have a morning routine. We take older brother Bud to school or camp, stop by the coffee shop for a roll and a schmooze with our regular pals, then head home, where Joe has a bottle and plays, mostly by himself, in the basement while I catch up with the Internet news on my computer.

Joe's at the age where he gets into everything. We've been through it before, so we do not hesitate to say "No!" and "Don't touch!" in emphatic voices. Gradually, it works.

The other day, however, I dashed upstairs to go to the bathroom, putting everything (as I thought) out of reach. Ordinarily Joe cries when I leave him. This time it was quiet. Too quiet. When I came back, I found him sitting in my swivel chair in front of the computer screen, with my pipe in one hand, my pipe tool in the other (he was digging the ash out of the bowl), and my tobacco pouch on his lap. He looked like he was just about to light up and log onto Free Republic.

Ahem. Then yesterday, I found Joe in my rocking chair upstairs, with a copy of Tom Clancy's Executive Orders on his lap, paging thoughtfully through the fat volume.

Joe doesn't imitate only me. His big brother, a dog enthusiast, had a library book he loved, a big-format text called The Encyclopedia of the Dog. Bud reads it religiously, generally sitting in the leather chair where he likes to roost while he reads or watches TV. While we had that book out of the library, we found Joe in Bud's chair with the dog book open on his lap, turning the pages carefully - with a pair of Bud's shorts on his head.

Last month, we watched the U.S. Open on TV. Joe looked closely at the golfers on television, then suddenly said, "Bee-ball! Bee-ball!" as a shot flew through the air. (This is how he says "The ball." "The dog" is "Dee-dog.") He had realized what the game is all about.

Next day, out in the yard, Joe found the skinniest of our several plastic baseball bats and started taking swings at balls on the ground. "Dolf!

Dolf!" he exclaimed.

As children grow older, they begin to imitate with greater sophistication - often with highly undesirable results. Bud's first TV exposure included some old Warner Brothers cartoons. Trust me, you do not want your child to start talking like Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, a kind of 1950s Brooklyn wiseguy.

Bud spent his first five years in Boston. When he was three, we bought the Phonics Game. One day, I was sounding out a word with him: "Duh-ah-guh," I said, pointing to the letters on the card: D-O-G.

"What's a dahg?" Bud asked.

"What's a dog?" I responded, in some astonishment. "Oh, dough-wug," he exclaimed, employing the proletarian Boston diphthong.

Some kinds of imitation - or is it inheritance? - do not bear close contemplation. Where does Bud's habit come from of racing through his homework without reading the instructions - generally getting everything right, but (as we know) cruising for a crash somewhere down the line? How about his habit of making anxious plans days ahead? "What are we going to do Saturday afternoon?" he'll demand - on Wednesday at the breakfast table.

How about his utter unconsciousness of the things that pass through his hands? Just this morning, I had to take him to camp wearing one old shoe and one new shoe. Where's the other new shoe? "I dunno."

What about his staying up till all hours reading books? Gulping down his dinner in three minutes and then wondering what's for dessert?

Did he get these qualities from Sally, or from me?

We don't ask. That way madness lies.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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