I was in elementary school—couldn’t possibly tell you what grade. But let’s say I was eight or nine—just old enough to know better, but probably too young to realize it. You know that age when boys are just starting to notice girls but they have no idea—NONE—how to interact with them? That hair-pulling, pencil-swiping, name-calling phase when their basic instincts are not just wrong but WAY wrong? That age.
It was a school night, and my mother was not happy. Not angry, really, but sooo disappointed. (That part you don’t forget.) She had just gotten off the phone with the mother of one of my classmates, a quiet, blond girl whose name I can’t recall. Earlier that day, on the walk home from school, in a simian display of prepubescent manliness no doubt meant to impress some other kid, I had done something vile, said something cruel, acted belligerently toward the little blond girl. Later, through many tears, she had reported the incident to her mom.
Confronted by my own shocked, disenchanted mother, of course I got defensive. “It was a JOKE,” I bellowed. “She’s just being a baby.” This lame attempt to deflect responsibility for my own crude behavior only added to my mother’s deepening sense of disappointment. She shook her head in disbelief. “Peter,” she said, “you were raised better than this. We don’t treat people like that. Not ever. You know better.” Her words pierced me, and the shame was overwhelming. But shame was not my mother’s ultimate purpose. She had a boy to raise and a lesson to teach, with high expectations she surely had learned from her own mother years before. And so in spite of my strident objections, we then drove to the blond girl’s house, and my mother stood, arms folded, as I scuffled my way through a mumbled, mortifying, lesson-teaching apology.
I hope that girl has long forgotten that after-school encounter, but it has now been more than 50 years and I cannot forget. Thank God for a mother who refused to let her son become a bully, a rude, confrontational, self-absorbed reprobate more inclined to cruelty than compassion. But more than that: Thank God for a mother who taught me to try to be more like Jesus—more inclined to kindness, unselfishness, good cheer, and virtue. Less attitude and more beatitude. The gospel she taught in our home is about radiating pure love and goodness, and while we lived it imperfectly, she always wanted it to be clear what we were striving for. In simple terms: She envisioned a son with whom any girl could feel safe while walking home.
Perhaps you, yourself, have been there: You’ve felt the shame or delivered the disappointed correction. Or both. Perhaps you remember what it was like to be that other kid, afraid of what might await you on the journey home from school, the kid sitting at the tiny desk in the tiny chair just wanting to be liked or simply left alone. And perhaps years later you’ve sat at that same desk in the same awkward chair, hoping (praying) that in the parent-teacher conference the teacher says, “He is so nice to the other children” or “She is such a delight to have in class.”
Most of us, I think, want those selfsame things for our children. Kindness, generosity, honesty, fair play—these are simple virtues we expect of our kids from the earliest age. And yet if you pay attention to grown-ups these days, it’s hard to miss the belligerence and aggression that dominates social media and the public square, with name-calling and bullying modeled by some of our most prominent citizens. How did this become OK? I can’t possibly be the only one called out by a mom for such conduct. Doesn’t it seem wrong that we now tolerate in adults behavior we would never put up with in a nine-year-old?
Well, we shouldn’t. We mustn’t. For our kids’ sake. As my mom would say: We were raised better than that. Weren’t we?