Is any of it sinking in? As our “conversation” drones on into the fourth and fifth and tenth minute, have I completely lost them? Have they moved on to thoughts of Legos and Lalaloopsies? Of course they have.
But I’m their Mom! I will send them out into the world: It’s my responsibility to prepare them to be forces of good within it! Even despite the glassy eyes and gaping mouths, I continue to talk.
As my kids get older, the conversations start feeling even more important and the time I have in which to instill these values feels increasingly short. I’m learning to choose my words more carefully; and most of the time, I find less is more. I’m paring down my Life Lessons into simple, easy-to-remember phrases that I hope will float through their brains when they need them. These quick little mantras encompass just about every situation we need words for now and hopefully will grow with my kids as our conversations continue to change.
The phrases used most often in our house are “Be Kind,” “Think of Others,” and “Make Good Choices.” These are general, universal virtues that seem to fit naturally into the situations that require the most Talking. Sibling squabbles? Be kind to your brother. Using a disrespectful tone with me? Speak with kindness in your voice. Not sharing? Think of your sister’s feelings before you tell her she can’t use those crayons. Going out to play in the backyard with the neighborhood kids? Make good choices!
We still have those big, situation-specific conversations when they’re needed, during which these mantras are explained and examples of what it means to “be kind” or “think of others” are given. Having these three simple statements in my back pocket, though, gives me a few parting words to share with my kids before I send them back to the playroom or off to school. And I’m hoping that the repetition of these most important keywords help them to stick long after the conversations end.
It makes me feel better, as though I’ve done my part to raise responsible, considerate human beings. For that moment, at least.
Despite its general usefulness, I’ve been thinking about that last phrase a lot recently: Make Good Choices.
I do want my kids to make good choices, of course, but often, there are more than two choices to be made and not all of them fit neatly into the Good box or the Bad. Most of the time, there are the obvious choices to avoid, but when it comes to making a good choice, sometimes there’s an even Better choice to be made; even a Best choice.
Do I expect my kids to make the Better, or even the Best choice every time? No. Sometimes, making the Best choice is really, really hard and I don’t want my kids to think that the only good choice to make is the Best Choice. If fear or intimidation prevents them from making the Best choice, they might think they may as well not do anything at all. If making the Best choice feels impossible, then make the Better choice, or even the Good choice. But don’t do nothing. You have more power than that. And you can use that Power for Good.
My 4-year old, Max, is playing with his brand-new Lalaloopsy mini doll. He saved up his own money and just bought it yesterday. Of course, as soon as she sees it, 2-year old Molly wants it. Now. The obvious choice for Max to avoid is to scream, “No! Molly! This is MINE!” as he pushes her out of the way. The best choice would be to smile cheerfully and say, “Sure, Molly! You can use it!” as he hands over his new toy, but that’s highly unlikely.
If making the best choice is too hard, don’t immediately call for Mom to step in and solve this Little Sister problem. You can handle this, Max! A good choice would be to calmly explain to Molly that he is not ready to share his new Lalaloopsy toy while handing her the Elsa and Anna figures from the princess bin. But! There’s an even better choice to be made, which isn’t as impossible as parting with a new toy, but that shows more kindness and love than distracting his sister with some other toys: Perhaps Max can offer Molly some of his other, older Lalaloopsy mini dolls and invite her to play with him. Kindness and generosity for the win!
Or maybe my 7-year old, Evan sees his friends teasing a new kid on the playground. A good choice would be to walk away and immediately go tell a grown-up. Arguably, the best choice might be to intervene: Tell your friends to stop, befriend the victim, and include him in a new playground game. I can’t imagine my 7-year old actually doing this, though, and it wouldn’t be because he doesn’t know that what he’s seeing is Wrong.
It would feel impossibly difficult for an introverted, quiet kid like Evan to act as boldly as standing up to a bully, even if that bully is a friend of his. I wouldn’t want him to think that, if he can’t stand up to his friend, he might as well just not do anything at all. He could do more than just telling someone about it...so maybe a better choice would be to tell a grown-up and later, privately, invite the new student over to play. My son would be demonstrating compassion and inclusion, and perhaps even a new, better friend would be made in the process.
In the heat of the moment, with all of the social and emotional pressures bearing down on him on that playground, even just getting a grown-up to put an end to the bullying is an acceptable choice. But maybe knowing that there are more than just Good and Bad choices will empower him to try to step outside of his comfort zone a bit and be an even Better friend.
So we’ve changed our vocabulary a bit:
Think of Others.
Make Better Choices.
It’s the kind of lesson that I hope will grow with my kids…
At a party and your buddy wants to drive home after drinking?
Bad Choice: Allow him to drive home.
Worst Choice: Allow him to drive YOU home.
Good Choice: Take your friend’s keys away from him and tell him to spend the night at the party house. (Then call us to come and get you.)
Better Choice: Call us to come pick you up from the party as soon as you realize that you’re in a situation in which you’d rather not be...preferably before the drinking begins. We will come, every time. No lectures. (But, maybe, a conversation...)
Best Choice: Skip the party altogether. Stay home and watch movies and play foosball with your family. We will have so much fun, just you wait! You can invite all of your friends!
Let’s face it, our kids aren’t going to be at their Best all of the time, because growing up is hard. Life is hard. But we can equip our kids with the confidence that, even when being their Best feels impossible, they can still choose to be Good...and, maybe, even Better.