The sun had just peaked over the horizon, the birds just started to sing their morning songs and the the line of cars had just begun their long commute when my son opened the door on his way to the bus stop. He was a junior in high school and was active in the drama department and band. One afternoon, he came home and announced that he wanted to drop band. I was disappointed as I wanted him to develop some musical talent that I didn’t have. Parents usually want their kids to do better academically or extracurricularly that the parent did and I was no exception. My son opened the door, turned and said “Bye.”
“Have a good day,” I responded. “Study hard and make smart decisions.”
This became my usual goodbye spiel for him and his brother when they left every day. If someone was in a hurry on any particular morning, I might shorten it to “Smart Decisions!”
There comes a point in every person’s life when the awareness of decisions and consequences becomes clear. Some reach that point in adolescence; some reach it in adulthood and some never reach it. It is that epiphany that every decision we make as human beings has consequences for us, our families and sometimes, complete strangers. The decisions we make from that point on are different, or at least they should be. They should have more weight and significance in our minds. They should be more thoughtful, considered and intelligent. We can hope anyway.
That point came to me later in life. I’m not saying I was retarded in that regard, just immature. I was 21 when I became aware of the significance of my decisions, but I was older before I learned how to make considered decisions. I was a Private First Class in the Army, stationed in Baumholder Germany. The Army, in its infinite wisdom deemed it necessary to assign me to an infantry battalion for my first duty assignment; despite the fact that I enlisted as a medic to get assigned to a hospital somewhere with the cushy clinical assignment in white medical uniforms and women all around. No, Uncle Sam thought it better that I was in camouflage Battle Dress Uniform marching with a couple of hundred other guys and no women for miles. Not that I was looking for women; I was a newlywed, after all. Nine months of being around only men, though, was tough.
One might think that this alone was enough for me to see the consequences of my decisions, but no. This was not my epiphany. That came later, after I was walking with PFC Meyers, a guy I went to AIT with in Ft. Sam and with whom I was assigned to the same unit in Germany. Meyers was one of those guys who always wore a crisp, ironed uniform, spit-shined boots and exactly regulation-length haircut. Meyers was a nice guy too. It was kind of hard to not like Meyers. He was polite and conscientious. I forgot the subject of our conversation, but he said something that made me not like him anymore. I think I was yelled at my one of our sergeants and I was complaining about it to Meyers when he said, “you can’t really blame them. I mean, just look at you and look at me.”
This was to illustrate that I was not wearing a crisp, ironed uniform, spit-shined boots or an exactly regulation-length haircut. He was employing a tried and true rhetorical device of comparison which, had I been more mature, would have motivated me to make smarter decisions about my professional appearance and work ethic. Unfortunately, at the time, it served to make me angry. I took it as an insult and a statement that he was better than I was. I changed the subject and avoided Meyers for sometime after that.
But when Meyers advanced quickly and I did not, it became apparent that I was NOT making smart decisions. I would not learn that skill until much later in life and it would take many years to undo the damage of my poor decision-making. I did learn how to spit shine boots and iron my uniform to a crisp. I even got a haircut more frequently.
So, when I tell my kids to make smart decisions, I do so hoping they will do better than I earlier in life. This does not always happen. I have watched my sons make some whoppers of bad decisions. Many of them are the exact same bad decisions I made at their age (which I unsuccessfully tried to council them to avoid) and many that I never made and never would have made. Kids, though, seems hard wired to avoid the council of their parents. They often say, “I have to be free to live my own life and make my own mistakes.”
This is usually met with the wailing of frustration inside my head. Do they not understand that I am trying to help them do better? Do they not understand that I have already done what they want to do and I know what is going to happen? It seems not. Both of my sons are out on their own now and neither communicates their plans to me so I can only watch from the sidelines as they live their lives. I have to bite my tongue when those plans do not go the way they thought they would, even though, had they employed smart decision-making skills I tried to teach them, they could have avoided it. I am really developing a taste for my tongue.
Now I have my nephew living with me. I try to employ the same “smart decisions” lessons with him and am having the same level of success. Maybe I need to make a smarter decision about how to teach smart decisions.