There is an old adage about little pitchers having big ears. Watch what you say around children, because they'll repeat it, perhaps causing acute embarrassment.
But it's not just language that they copy. They are little sponges, soaking up even the most subtle of attitudes revealed through body language, personality tics, and, perhaps the most insidious teaching tool of all, unspoken assumptions that influence how we interact with those around us.
When my wife and I wrestled with the problem of child care for our soon-to-arrive twins, it quickly became apparent that leaving them with someone else while we carried
on with our high-stress and high-travel careers was not really an option.
One of us had to quit and stay home with them, we decided.
Since we were at different stages in our jobs at the time (I eager to stop chasing wars and natural disasters, my wife enamored with investigative journalism), I volunteered to be the home anchor.
We haven't looked back.
We knew that the twins, a boy and a girl, growing up in a nontraditional household, would require some explanations. But sometime in the future. Certainly not anytime soon.
We assumed that they would hardly notice in the early years that their parents were not like others they knew.
At our house, it was mom who went to the office, and it was dad who did the laundry, made the omelets,vacuumed the floors, and carpooled.
We were proud that our kids would receive a real-life short course in gender equity. Mom can be the breadwinner, and dad is fully capable of nurturing children. Hooray for us.
What we failed to consider was that the twins, knowing only as much of the world as they saw through us, would get a skewed view of reality.
It should have come as no surprise that they quite naturally assumed that all families were like ours.
This became apparent one day when I picked them up from preschool. Summer, our daughter, began telling me about a new boy who had come into the class that day. Just to draw her out a bit, I asked her who had brought the child into the room.
She started to answer, "He was brought by..." and paused, then, gathering her thoughts, continued, "... by his ... uh ... his ... daddy woman."
The mother who brought her son into the class was a "daddy woman," a woman filling a man's role. After all, it is daddies who care for children, and mothers who go to work, in my daughter's view.
Later, my wife was about to leave on assignment and was saying goodbye to the children.
Our son, Jordan, was not pleased that his mom was leaving, so she paid special attention to him.
"I won't be gone long this time," she said. "It's a short trip, but it's necessary for my job. When you grow up and have a job, you might have to travel, and you'll understand."
Jordan looked surprised and said in a tone that suggested he'd caught her in a big mistake, "Mom, boys don't work!"
On both occasions, we laughed and hugged the little ones, but then took time to explain our situation and how it relates to other families.
Now they both know that moms are moms, whether they work outside the home or not, and the same goes for dads.
Summer knows she can care for a family or be the breadwinner, and Jordan knows that boys become men who do work, and he's compiling an ever-changing list of jobs he'd like to do. Including a job like Mom's.
But I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if that "daddy woman" thing caught on.
Al Dale is a stay-at-home dad in Atlanta and a former correspondent for ABC News.
Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting experiences, send an e-mail to: email@example.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor