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“Maaaaa!” my daughter whined when she met me at the door. It had been a long day at work, and Cate caught me the second I walked in the house. “You said you would read my essay. I need to get it finished now.”

“Okay, okay, let me get in and get settled.” I gently pushed past her and set my things down.

“I’m going to miss the deadline for early decision,” she mumbled and stalked away.

“Just send me the thing and I will look at it when I get a chance.” I didn’t hear her response. Her brother, 3, and sister, 15 months, accosted me, demanding my attention. Cate’s oldest sister, 20, came in with the latest drama from college. The other teens helped her as the toddlers pulled me six different ways. My husband got dinner under control while I tended to all six kids and their lives.

Then it was time for bed. I had forgotten Cate’s essay again. This time, she would not let me go.

“Mommy!” Cate demanded. She had waited for everyone to get their moment of attention. She had been calm as the toddlers played and as the other teens talked. After dinner, she stood squarely in front of me. “Mommy.”

I opened my computer and went to the essay. I wasn’t proud of overlooking her for so long. I felt even more like a heel once I read what she had written:

“Parents do a lot for their children. They love us. They clothe and feed us. Some parents struggle for the benefit of their children. Those parents work for hours and hours at menial jobs so they can afford to buy us what we need. They put their educations on hold so that we can go on through school, and on to college, with no worries.”

Like a punch in the gut, that first paragraph deflated me. I took a breath, blinked away a tear and moved on:

“Our parents’ struggles go largely unnoticed and underappreciated. I have seen glimpses of the war my mother and father fought daily for years so that my five siblings and I can live the lives we have always dreamed of living. This ongoing struggle — war actually — is what has pushed me to excel in school, to work hard and to take advantage of any opportunities that come my way.”

I had to set Cate’s words down and move to my office to continue. I was feeling tremendous guilt for having denied this child my time, especially after reading her words of admiration. But there was another thing moving me as well, that had me fighting tears. It was the memory of the struggle that Cate was writing about.

I flashed back to my first semester of college. I was a 19-year-old mother of two toddlers who had entered college a year late. Cate, almost a year old, was toddling around and getting into everything. Her older sister was a rambunctious 3-year-old. My husband had been working the graveyard shift as a security guard at a trailer manufacturing plant, and needed to get a full six-hour nap before his shift delivering pizzas started. We lived in married student housing. At the time, they were the FEMA trailers on the back lot of the campus, about an acre of tiny ovens for us nontraditional families.

I needed to study. My husband needed sleep. Cate and her sister needed to cool down. We had no money to spare. My solution: a campus adventure. We walked to the middle of campus, playing I Spy while Cate gathered leaves and sticks. At the library, I told the kids that we were going to the top of the world. The elevator to the fourth floor led us to the oft-abandoned periodicals. I spread a blanket on the floor near the back wall and laid out my books and some toys. The girls played until it was time to nap. While they were down, I got my studying done. After their nap, we went back to the hotbox, where I made dinner with as little heat as possible.

I thought Cate was too young to remember those days. And maybe she was. Later in the essay, she described all the fun things we did when she was a child. Like the fun library trips, which I often relied on as free entertainment and a reprieve from the heat when we were too broke for air conditioning. I thought I was shielding them from poverty.

But the kids were watching. They are always are. Cate’s essay reminded me that they watch us, and that’s how they learn to be adult humans. This especially holds true for times of hardship, be it financial or emotional. The kids learn how to handle these things by watching us handle them.

Some of the memories the essay brought back were not so flattering. Like every parent, I lost my patience in frustrating moments. I also had more than my share of cringe-worthy times that I don’t want to relive, like the day I denied my kid’s essay the attention it deserved. Those are a part of life, for all of us.

The thing is, the kids aren’t keeping score. Their memories are shaped by the everyday, ordinary actions that we call living. These include how we handle the stuff that builds character. How we treat others. How we pass the time. How we meet adversity. How much we live, laugh and love despite our circumstances.

“My family may be in a better place now, but the stories my parents tell my siblings and me from when we were too little to remember still influence the decisions and aspirations I have. I am now aware of the sacrifices and hardships they took on daily to make sure we were happy. The desire to make all of their stress and struggle worth it is what pushes me to do whatever is possible to educate and better myself.”

The next time you struggle with life’s challenges, just remember: The children are watching.

Jonita Davis is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @bylinesbyjo.

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