This week I was asked to answer the question of whether I was well-behaved, or badly behaved as a child. SO…here goes.
The easy and quick answer is to just say, “I was well-behaved,” and that is true. I was. But it would, of course, defeat the purpose of this exercise if I just let it go with that. The idea of the whole “Storyworth” endeavor, I think, is to give our kids, grandkids, and others who may some day read our answers, a sense of who we are.
So let me expand a bit. Yes, I was well-behaved. I recall being a pretty easy kid. A bit sensitive… a bit shy… but I didn’t cause too much chaos or drama. I’ve talked before about being the kid who mom took shopping — perhaps in part because I was the baby for a number of years, but also because I’d sit patiently reading a book, while mom shopped, and just didn’t fuss much.
At home, I read (a lot), I played tons of solitaire card games and I had molded plastic soldiers and cowboys and Indians that I enjoyed playing with. I’d build card houses and then shoot them down with rubber bands. I’d line up soldiers and do the same. I got pretty good with those rubber bands. I also had Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, and lots of other things to keep me busy. The point is, I could play by myself peacefully and contentedly for hours on end.
My older sister Chris and I played together — and we fought too — but no worse than any other siblings separated by four years might. I was a good student, I followed rules, and I was not one to rock any boats. I wanted to be a “good boy.” I didn’t want to disappoint. I guess my sense of self was shaped in part by being seen positively by others… by adults.
That’s what made it hard for me to be a “bad boy” later on as I grew older. Not that I was SO bad. But I started to smoke when I was in high school. I’d tap into my Dad’s liquor cabinet, or we’d get someone to buy at the liquor store for us. Malt liquor, blackberry brandy, (I cringe at the memory), beer, bourbon, the usual stupid stuff that kids did.
I stayed out too late. I skipped school and forged notes from my mother. But although I saw myself as breaking out of my good boy mold, I was never really that bad. I was just a kid trying to fit in, to be somewhat cool — and though I never really succeeded, I wasn’t a total nerd either.
But even when I’d be less than perfect, I took great pains not to get caught. I still wanted to be perceived as a “good boy” — to be seen as meeting the expectations that everyone had of me. A good student, a good kid, and one who people just expected would do the right thing, would succeed, would get good grades, etc. And, to be honest, that IS who I wanted to be. I wanted to get it right… to be smart… to be an achiever… to win the prize.
I put more pressure on myself to maintain that image than I probably needed to. But I did. And, although it would have been nice if my parents or others I respected told me ”it’s okay if you fail, it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to not always get it right,” I was so busy living up to what I though others might expect that I didn’t let them see that a bit of reassurance would have been welcome.
That was then. This is now. Life is a great teacher. I’ve learned over the years since those days that we can’t live our lives to meet the expectations of others. I’ve learned that we have to be true to ourselves. We have to know what matters to US and not just what others think should matter. I’ve learned that being good isn’t about following all the rules. It’s about being doing what we know in our hearts is the right thing for us — no matter how others see it or judge us for our choices.
Being well-behaved as young kid was easy. It fit who I was. But over the years, I had to redefine what “well-behaved” looked like. And that’s OK. You can break a few rules. You can struggle. You can doubt. You can fail. The world won’t end. But be true to yourself. Know what is right and what is not. And make the choices that let you be proud of yourself.
That’s what being “well-behaved” looks like to me today. It doesn’t matter what others see. It’s what you see when you look at yourself, at your life and your choices, that matters.
Six decades have passed since I was that kid sitting quietly while his mom shopped. I’ll not judge if I still fall into the “well-behaved” category or not. Somehow that measure doesn’t mean much to me at my age. But, although there are things I regret… things I could have done better… moments when I could have been kinder, more thoughtful, or more giving, the journey from then until now has been rich with learning and growth. I am at peace with my choices and with the person I’ve become and, well-behaved or not, you can’t ask for more than that.