One day when I was 11 years old, my mother taught me a lesson I still remember.
I was loading the dishwasher, and as I placed the utensils in the basket, I had a stroke of genius. I decided to place all the spoons in one section of the basket, all the forks in another section, and so on. That way, when I unloaded the dishwasher, I wouldn’t have to organize the utensils. I could just put them in their place in the drawer.
I felt so proud of myself – but then my mother came by.
“Joshua,” she said, “you need to mix the utensils or they’ll stick together, the water won’t get in between them, and they won’t get clean.”
She could probably see the disappointment on my face.
“Son, I know you thought that was a good idea, but don’t feel bad about it – that’s the way I used to do it too. But one time, we were visiting your grandma, and she told me the same thing. At first, I didn’t appreciate her saying it, but then I realized she actually had a good point.”
Suddenly, I found it much easier to swallow Mom’s correction, and I did what she suggested. In fact, I’ve done it that way ever since. So yeah, I learned something that day – but the most important thing was not what she taught me, but how she taught me. That is, she didn’t just tell me what to do, she used a story about herself to illustrate the point.
That’s not so hard to do when you’re teaching a kid how to load a dishwasher, but there were other times my mom taught me lessons about much more sensitive topics – topics like marriage, spirituality, kindness, sexuality, self-control, abuse, and shame, to name a few. Even when addressing those areas, she used personal stories to teach me things that simply couldn’t be learned in the abstract.
I’m sure it was humbling for her (maybe even humiliating) to be so vulnerable, but it came with a big payoff: I actually listened to her, and I listened to her because I could see that she was paying a price to make her point.
I knew a guy whose dad regularly told him that he needed to wait until he was married to have sex. One time, when he was in high school, he asked his dad if he had waited to have sex, and his dad dodged the question. It wasn’t until several years later that my friend did the math and realized that his older brother had been conceived before his parents’ wedding day.
Imagine how powerful it would’ve been if his dad would’ve taken the time to tell his story – the real one. Maybe he could’ve talked about what a letdown his first time was; maybe he could’ve told the story of how scary it was to learn that his girlfriend was pregnant at 18; maybe he could’ve talked about how embarrassed he and his young bride felt at their wedding. But instead, all my friend got from his dad was, Don’t.
I want to be more like my mom as I teach my children how to make wise decisions – whether we’re talking about loading the dishwasher or other, more personal topics. It might be a little embarrassing to be so transparent, but if my memory is any indicator, at least they won’t forget what I said – and they might even follow my advice.