There’s lots of advice out there about raising children. I firmly believe the seeds and hard work of parenting—instilling values of self-respect, other-respect, kindness and right and wrong--are planted at a young age. By the time they are teenagers, as a parent, you mostly sit back, offer guidance when you can, and hope they will reap a positive harvest.
One day, when our son was in middle school, he was walking home from the bus drop-off, as usual, and passed our neighbors and their horses, as usual. About fifteen minutes after arriving home, we got a phone call. Our neighbor, in tears, told me that my son had cussed at her horses.
I wasn't quite sure how to respond. “Our son? The blonde boy?” I asked a little incredulously. I know as parents we never want to believe our precious children could commit such crimes, but, truly, this was so out of his nature, even by teachers’ reports of what a good kid he was, I was having a tough time wrapping my head around my son hurling foul language at animals. Nonetheless, I apologized and promised we'd certainly talk with him.
“Did you cuss at a horse on the way home from the bus stop, today?” I asked, wondering at the string of words I'd just connected.
“No,” he said. He named another kid and swore it was this other neighbor’s trespass.
Since we could really neither affirm nor deny his assertion, his father and I just reminded him that his actions are always being watched. “From now on, walk on the opposite side of the road so you don’t even risk having the neighbors think you might be cussing at their animals. Also, this is a good reminder of how the company you keep is important to guard.” I wasn't sure how else to respond. I had a feeling, and maybe I was just guilty of a parent’s halo effect, that he really wasn't the perpetrator of dirty equine insults.
Still, I told him this story:
Once, several years before, his father had been driving home in our old blue Jimmy from the 80s era. The steering column was loose and wobbly, and, to make matters worse, my husband has a tendency to stare at something and then drive in that general direction, correct the car, and get back on course. One day, shortly after he arrived home from work, a friend, who was also a local deputy, showed up at our house. “We got a call about you for possible drunk driving,” the deputy told my husband.
My husband was stunned. “Me?” he asked.
“Yeah, when they said your license and name over the radio, I knew it probably wasn’t the case, so I offered to come up, but by law, we have to check it out.”
My husband looked thoughtful. “There was a lady who followed me all the way home. I wondered. The steering column is loose in the car,” he offered in the way of an explanation.
I, of course, was laughing. My husband had been a pastor in town for ten years. Not that this precludes someone from bad judgment, but I knew he wasn’t a drinker and his occupation made this scenario all the funnier. The deputy, not smelling alcohol or seeing any signs of intoxication, just gave my husband a kind reminder to be more careful about his steering and left.
Not long after his patrol car pulled out of our driveway, the phone rang. A parishioner was on the phone giggling. “I had my police scanner on and heard your name. Everything OK?” Sigh. Life in the small town. He would endure a few more good-natured jabs like that before the evening was through.
The moral of course, the one we wanted our son to hear, was that people are watching our behavior, who we hang with, what we do. If our reputation is clean and people know our character, there is a positive payoff when it’s mistakenly called into question. He was delighted by the story of his father’s close call with the law, and I think we made our point.
Our son is getting ready to graduate from college in a month. As far as we know, he never had another incident involving foul language and horses. He’s an outstanding man I'm so very proud of. I bet someday he'll remember that story about his father and pass it along to his children, to remind them that our reputation is one of our most valuable resources…and that swearing at livestock is never a good idea.