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From kid who stole Halloween candy to community leader: How children surprise us.

My neighborhood listservs bristled today at trick or treaters who, discovering an absent homeowner kindly left out a bowl of candy with a note to “please take one,” went ahead and took all the candy and sometimes the bowl. There were comments about thoughtless and greedy kids.

I had that exact experience in my own neighborhood where a neighbor who worked nights left out a bowl and instructions to take one item. I took my allotted Milky Way only to watch the boy behind me dump the entire bowl in his bag and run off laughing.

Not only was the boy a classmate at my Catholic grammar school, his dad was a well-respected civic leader and his mother a devoted church volunteer. Between that blatant theft and the boy's annoying classroom antics, I thought for sure he'd end up living in his parent's basement and returning soda bottles for a living.

Nope. He became a doctor respected for his good works and served on the school board.

I wonder how often we get it wrong with kids. My friend had a daughter who, as a teen, snuck out at night to meet boys, skipped school and generally disdained everything her parents represented. I shared her mother’s concern as this young woman found everything boring and nothing worth her effort. Now, she lives a few blocks from her parents, has an advanced degree and two adorable kids. Somehow, she grew up in college after a bumpy start and became much more like her parents than I ever imagined possible.

One of the marvels of parenting is being wrong, about your own kids and others. My son had two friends I thought were on the path to diabetes. As young boys, they lived on Sprite, chocolate syrup and toast. Now, they are serious athletes who only drink water, avoid sweets and keep apples by their dorm beds.

It has also been a pleasant surprise to know kids whispered about as “too rough,” “out of control” and “barely passing” mature and accomplish remarkable things. While I know there are harbingers of things to come in children’s early school performance, I've found it a mistake to make sweeping assumptions based on middle or even high school transcripts.

And it works the other way, too. Confident and focused kids who seem on a set course to success sometimes end up in tough places none of us foresaw.  I can’t necessarily find a pattern in which kids evolve from stealing Halloween candy to volunteering in soup kitchens, although I suspect a stable home helps that corrective curve. Nor can I always explain the shining stars at 13 who flicker at 23.

Because of my oldest child and her two babies, I am around a lot of young parents who imagine Wimbledon in a 6-year-old’s taut backhand or fear detention hall in a 4-year-old’s refusal to ever listen. I've found early indicators of talent or trouble don't mean much. I'm not sure we know which child will surprise us or how.

Have any of you had children in your lives or classrooms who proved you and everyone else wrong?







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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.