WASHINGTON - So it's parents' night at school and I'm there on behalf of my youngest son. I look at him sometimes and see a toddler with a gap in his grin and a penchant for gnawing his toes.
But that's just a memory lie. The toddler is a teen-ager 2 inches taller than I am, a youngster on the cusp of manhood.
It hasn't been a fun passage. Last year, we went through a phase where he felt compelled to challenge everything I said, down to and including, "Hello."
These days, he doesn't so much challenge me as endure me. My son has perfected the thousand-yard stare, eyes fixed on something beyond your line of sight while you're yammering on about a good work ethic, the importance of education or some other bit of useless arcana from the book of responsible adulthood.
There is nothing quite as effective as a teen-ager for making one feel like a moron.
So anyway, I'm at parents' night. It's just me - my wife is with one of the other kids, my son couldn't be bothered. I'm in his social studies class and I ask to see some of his work. The teacher finds his folder, I page through his papers, and I come across a short essay: The Person I Most Admire.
Turns out it's two people. Some rap entrepreneur ... and me. Most of the essay, in fact, is about the overall wonderfulness of me - about the lessons I've taught my son and the ways I've shaped his life.
To say I was shocked is to understate by half. I guess you never know, do you? You flat-out never know.
This episode came to mind a few days ago as I absorbed the results of a new parenting study, "A Lot Easier Said Than Done," by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in New York City. The study (you'll find it on the group's Web site, www.publicagenda.org) produced a number of fascinating statistics on parents and parenting. One set of questions from the survey particularly intrigued me. It sought to ascertain how good a job parents feel they've done in transmitting basic values to their children.
The short answer: not very good.
For instance, while 83 percent of parents say it's essential to teach children self-discipline and self-control, only 34 percent feel they've successfully done it. Ninety-one percent say it's important to teach children to be honest and truthful, but just 55 percent think they've managed to do so. And so on.
I thought it was just me who felt overmatched. Turns out it's most of us.
You're anxious about what sort of job you're doing, what kind of adult you're creating. You struggle against the amorality of media, the cockiness of youth, the influence of peers, and most of all, the inadequacy of self, trying to ensure that the persons your children become are, at heart, decent, responsible and good.
But in the end, you wonder, you worry and you doubt. Because some days - MOST days - you'd swear they never hear a word you say.
I had to wonder if my son left that essay for me to find, but it seems unlikely. The students' work folders weren't put out for parental inspection and he had no way of knowing I would request to see his.
Maybe I should have asked him about what he had written, but I didn't know what to say and didn't want to embarrass him. So he'll never know I saw it - unless, I suppose, he happens across this column someday.
If so, I hope it's after he has had some children of his own and experienced what it's like to want for them, to desire desperately and without regard to self the very best for them. And to receive in response the thousand-yard stare and heavy sigh of someone who is being forced to endure an idiot's blather.
When he knows what that feels like, maybe he'll know why I made a copy of his essay. And why I put it in a trunk of things I mean to keep, always.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column usually appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.