If I could say one thing to nineteen-year-old me, it would be, “You’re going to date Prince Charming.” Mere acquaintances in college, I simply had a sense about him. That he would be strong and silent, yet gentlemanly and romantic. That he was a quality guy of integrity. He was, quite simply, out of my league.
In this case, my imagination was delightfully accurate, though it would be another thirteen years before I’d find out for myself. In those days, I accented my tank tops with a string of guilt. Reflecting on my mistakes evolved into fixating on them. My occasional assertions of teenage rebellion bore lasting scars. “Others can, you can’t,” my father would tell me.
He was right. It was because I knew better. I asked my sophomores to freewrite on the word “choices” today. There was this clear thread of morality woven through my kids’ writing. As they shared, the mood deepened to pensive, pregnant with thought. They wrote of good and bad choices, right and wrong choices, careless and daring choices.
Human nature is to pounce off of instinct. This weekend, Charming and I visited with my brother’s family. After a long walk outside, we retreated into leisurely family time with my twenty-month old twin nieces and five-year old nephew. Tessa was playing on the floor with a toy when Katarina begged me with an adorable, persistent, “Pease? Pease?” for my phone. I conceded. Immediately, Tessa dropped her toy and grabbed assertively for the phone in Katarina’s hands. A little fight ensued.
The scene was precious… and so telling. Before knowledge and experience shape us into responsible human beings, we see what we want and go after it. There is no concern for its fairness, its goodness, its safety, or its ability to compromise our integrity. There will not be one lesson for these little girls. It will come in thousands of little moments of modeling and instruction by the grown-ups and peers in their lives.
I see it already beginning with the girls when Tessa picks up one bottle for herself and immediately carries another to Kat. They respond to the cue, “Share.” They mimic what we say. Ultimately, our choices, as informed by collective years of our own growth through modeling and instruction, we shape the moral compass of the next generation and inform the dialogue my teens were having today.
In those times in my adolescence when I abandoned my integrity and chose what I knew was not right, little gems of guilt piled up on my nightstand. That was why others could, but I couldn’t. The consequence of a choice made not of sound judgment was living with it after it was inevitably declared a mistake, often by my father.
My recent commitment to read the news every day leaves me mostly dejected. My flirtation with current events involved a minor politician crush which Charming seemed amused by. Mom will often text me updates. This just in: “I’m in tears! Marco’s concession speech was so beautiful. More like a sermon.” I was ignoring the news updates as I wrote tonight, but I couldn’t help but check my phone after hearing Mom’s text tone.
When I watched Marco Rubio debate last summer for the first time, I modeled my own view after my father’s on the couch beside me. Rubio was just too young this time around. My father is wise about these things. Well, about everything. (Note to my young bloggers: Give it a decade, and you’ll feel the same way!) Marco stooped to a low level in his campaign, and the backlash was astounding.
Others can, Marco can’t. His political identity was assuaged by attacks on his character and integrity. He knew better, too, like I have felt so many times, and he admitted as much publically in its wake. Our character, our integrity, they are informed by modeling, but they are formed through choices.
In my nephew’s kindergarten class, there is a behavior monitoring system. Each student starts in the middle of a ladder, and his position moves down for bad behavior and up for good behavior. Eagle is the highest rating a child can attain. Up until last month, J.J. had landed on Eagle maybe twice, and his name had even been on the announcements.
It’s not easy for five-year-olds to make it to Eagle. They are met with an abundance of choices, and they have a fraction of the collection of knowledge and experience points that adults have. They have to choose to be obedient, well-mannered, kind, considerate, and helpful. This month, J.J. landed on Eagle five days in a row. It was unbelievable. When I asked him how, J.J. responded, “I made good choices.”
I didn’t expect a freewrite about choices to highlight morality; however, by adolescence, we’ve earned just enough knowledge and experience points for it to be dangerous. We flirt with minor instances of rebellion despite the little red flags in our purview or checks in our spirits. I overheard a conversation between some of my students that left me conflicted. An older guy with a shady reputation asked one of my girls out. She is a young innocent, like Rapunzel, waiting for a brave lad to rescue her.
But we all know that the witch tricks Rapunzel, and please don’t read the Grimm’s Brother’s version of the tale as a bedtime story. The innocent are impressionable. They know right and wrong. They know hope. And they often place too much merit on hope’s ability to affect the outcome of a poor decision.
I hope Rapunzel isn’t fooled by a wolf in sheep’s clothes; I wish that she could borrow the Queen’s magic mirror and see her own Prince Charming on her arm in a decade. That it would be that vision of imagination that would keep her steadfast to her own value and worth.
Ultimately, Rapunzel will assess her value and worth for herself, and if she piles up enough gems of guilt on her nightstand to make a necklace of her own, then like me, she’ll meet Charming and think, “He’s out of my league.” As babies, we act on instinct. As children, we mirror behavior. As teens, we consider the consequences… and dismiss them for the hope that something good will come of them, or heed them as integral in shaping our character.
After Charming, an older guy with a shady reputation couldn’t manipulate me into casting a single glance in his direction. He has earned enough knowledge and experience points to model sound judgment. He is exactly who I imagined him to be so many years ago, perhaps even better. The choice to engage in a dangerous flirtation would comprise my integrity. I want to be a better woman than Charming imagined me to be thirteen years ago, too.
Tessa, Katarina, and J.J. will look up to learn how to make choices. On Saturday, they were looking up at me and Charming. Their parents trust me with the responsibility of modeling morality and encouraging good decisions. It will be some time before they understand what grace is, but we’ll be modeling that, too.
Our choices continue to define us. We age. We acquire knowledge and experience. We make bigger choices. If we pay attention to the little red flags or the checks in our spirits, we might make a choice we’re comfortable living with afterward.
Sometimes, we miss that step and end up regretting our choice. If that happens, learn from the mistakes, girls; don’t brand yourself with them. Reflect on them only long enough to learn and move forward. Redefine yourself with the next good choice.