If I’m my kids’ first teacher, then my kids are in trouble

Photo from The Suburban Crab archives

Photo from The Suburban Crab archives

The other day I came home from work to find the following detailed message written on our dry-erase message board:

“Lady called Mom.”

Thankfully, Ted, who had arrived home before me, had filled in some of the details the original message-taker had not provided. He’d written, “I think it’s the same woman who called yesterday about having her thesis edited.” The woman had previously left a voicemail but had not left her phone number, simply noting she would call back.

That evening, as I was hugging Billup good night, she remembered: “Oh yeah, Mom, did you get the message? Some lady from Germany called you. She wanted you to edit some paper or something.”

She continued, “I didn’t like her; she was so rude! When I answered the phone, she was like, ‘Why did you hang up earlier?’ Because the first time she called, I couldn’t hear anyone so I hung up the phone.”

“Hold on.” I asked exactly what took place during the call.

“She said she was calling from Germany, and she asked if you were there. I told her you weren’t,” Billup said.

“And… what did she say when you told her I wasn’t here?”

“She said she’d call back and I said ‘OK,’” Billup explained, then added again: “I didn’t like her. She was so rude!”

“And… you didn’t take down her phone number?”

“She came in as ‘Unlisted number,’” my daughter said, referring to the caller ID function on our phone.

I was, frankly, aghast. My mom had trained my brother and me, at what seemed like quite a young age, on how to answer the phone and exactly what we needed to take down in our messages. It didn’t matter how shy or awkward I was, certain protocols had to be followed. For every caller, we had to write down:

  • Caller’s name
  • Caller’s phone number
  • Reason for calling
  • Time he or she called

Billup is 11. Why didn’t she know to do the same?

“Um, kiddo: Next time someone calls for us but we’re not here, you have to ask if you can take a message, not just say, ‘She’s not here,’” I told her. “And then you have to ask for their name and write down their phone number.”

Billup heard the admonishment in my voice, because she got defensive: “OK, OK! I didn’t know! You never told me!”

And there’s the rub.

I never had taught Billup what to do upon receiving a phone call. Ted didn’t seem too worried about it, pointing out that in this age of cell phones and texting, few opportunities arose to actually answer the household land-line phone. But it left me wondering: What else have we failed to teach our kids about navigating this thing called life?

Sure, they know how to play basketball and soccer, two sports I’ve never mastered. Boof can text incredibly fast on his phone. Both kids know how to shop online and can find the security code on my credit card. And they can find the cutest cat videos and obscure Asian comics I’d never heard of before on YouTube.

But will they know enough of the practicalities of life—and the niceties, those things called manners—to actually be successful, respected, well-liked adults? When out for a business dinner, will Boof prop his elbows on the table, lean his mouth down to his plate and shovel the food in as he does now? Will Billup know how to clean the toilet at her first apartment, or will it become an encrusted health hazard because she’d never picked up a toilet brush before? Will either child understand that in the real world, it won’t matter if the person on the other end of the phone line is rude, they might still have to take down that person’s name, number and message?

At this point, I’m not holding out a lot of hope. ’Cause I think we all know I ain’t gonna be teaching them a damn thing.


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