I got an important lesson today. A life lesson in motherhood.
I had a teacher-parent conference for my fourth-grader. I sat with all four of his teachers, got his report card and learned how he’s doing in class. His report card was, as always, fantastic. He got straight As, with a low of 92 and a high of 99. Awesome. Then we talked about his behavior, and though he’s a fantastic kid, he’s been goofing off in class entirely too much.
This is something he and I have talked about before. We have a silly family and we’re big fans of wit and humor. His dad was voted the Class Clown of his senior class. He comes by these things honestly. At the same time, it’s important to understand when and where it is and isn’t appropriate to be silly. Why did his behavior get worse this quarter instead of better?
As we drove home in the car it occurred to me to talk to him about “what” and “how” and why they are both important. It was time for a life lesson. I explained to him that what you do is half the battle. Your work, the outcome of it, is certainly important, whether you get good grades, or meet your objectives at work, or become successful in your career, or win awards, or try something you’ve never done before, or get past an obstacle … whatever the case may be.
Then I said that how you do what you do is the other half of the battle. It counts at least just as much and often more. If you make a lot of money in life, such that you can live comfortably and give to others, that’s cool. But if you treated people like crap while doing it, it’s not cool. If you get an A on a test, that’s great. If you got the A by cheating, it doesn’t count. If you are mean, dishonest, disruptive, lacking in empathy, or behaving inappropriately those things matter.
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? It’s something I kind of expected he would already know, given the way we talk at home and the kinds of conversations we’ve had. These are basic life lessons. Common sense. But you know what he said to me in response?
Why didn’t you ever tell me this before?
I was shocked. Do I have to be that explicit? That’s the thing about motherhood. The scary thing. I forget that just because I told them something when they were five doesn’t mean they remember it, or took it in. I make these unconscious assumptions that my children know what I know. Is it because they live with me? Is it because I think I’ve said something before when I haven’t it? Is it because I’m much less clear than I think I am? Is it that I expect they’ll behave like I behave or understand my underlying motivations?
It keeps playing in my head. Why didn’t you tell me before mom?
God I love that kid. He’s so awesome. He teaches me as much as I try to teach him. I have to ask myself whether I ever made it clear that his how matters so much more to me than his what. I did today. I need to keep doing it. I can’t forget that imparting life lessons is not, can never be, a one-time event.
Photo credit: Katherine Stone