"Why is this so important to you all of a sudden?" - Hiccup
"Because I want to remember what you say right now." - Astrid, from How To Train Your Dragon
It would be nice if every time you had a chance for a learning opportunity the signs were as obvious as that. Problem is, those lines came from a great movie, and life doesn't follow scripts.
Parents worthy of the name worry about how their kids will think of them, and what kind of example they will leave. Many times, this leads to acting or forcing yourself to act in ways and be things you don't really feel. Smiling at that really rude drive-in person who blew your order and blamed you for it, or cutting out the last few words of comment about that guy who just cut in front of you on the highway, or eating the brussels sprouts. Object lessons for good impressions.
But as in movies and schools oftentimes you just can't act your way perfectly all the time and lessons aren't the same once you're out of the classrooms. That's when you're yourself, not the person you want to be, and with the perfect eye of the eternal critic, your child notices those and remembers them, and those times shape them in ways you can't know or imagine.
It's hard to always be perfect. Life sets up behavior grooves and paths that you just fall in no matter how hard you try not to be that person. It's like a floor in a well-lived in house - no matter how straight and even it started out being, after much living and weight on it, when you drop a marble on it, that marble's gonna roll to where the dents are. Perfection beaten in to reality.
As the dad of an autistic son, it can be harder to know when I've made an impression. Autistic people tend to be deep inside their own selves, and it may not matter whether or not I curse in front of him or throw down my Wii controller when the game beats me. After all, if he's not going to notice or really understand anyway, why try to be perfect? Why not just be me, for better and usually worse?
Here's the thing. You know the one thing your child's gonna remember, the one thing that will affect him more than anything, the one thing that will make him the person he will be?
No, you don't. It may be some huge event that's easy to spot - saving his brother's life, having to tend to a sick dad, watching a friend die. Or it may be that tiny, forgotten moment you won't remember the instant after it happened, when you were yourself for a critical second. That's more true for us, since that moment may not be obvious, explainable, or even registered by my son at the time, but have immeasurable effects on his life afterward. As his moments have done for me.
Parenthood is an eternal learning moment, a classroom with no teachers, one individual student, and no bell at the end of the day. So, really, is childhood. As much as you make an impression on your child, they make impressions on you. I've said many times I've adjusted to the new normal my life is. It's not easy at times, not fun at times, stressful and hard. But I do it without a second thought, because it's what my life has been formed into.
How? I don't know. I've said it before - if you had told me how my life would drastically change with my son's autism, described the things I would have to do and all the extra tasks and guesses and uncertainties - I would not only have doubted I could have done it, I wouldn't have understood it could be done.
But little by little, when my son needed me to do something, I did it and the grooves were formed for me to do it again when needed. These things range from helping him do things to being very pushy for my son and his needs to being a mean dad to him so he'll do something on his own. And others I don't know but my son has seen and maybe understood, affecting him in ways I can't know. I don't know what he thinks of me now, and how he'll feel about me later. I'm sure I'll screw up in some ways that will change him - perhaps because I tend to let him do his own thing, he'll swear inside and unconsciously that when he has kids he'll spend more time with them. Maybe because I try to be nice to people, he'll be nice to them. Maybe not - perhaps everything I've done is like water off the back of a duck, sliding off him with no registration.
I don't think so, though. Because I know little things he's done have made big changes in my life, and that will keep on happening. Whether or not my actions make the impression I'd like them to make, they will make one. Even if these impressions are faint to me, they may be huge to him.
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." - Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night.