As I sat in church with my husband and daughter today, I couldn’t help but observe the two little girls sitting in front of us, sisters, I assumed, about 9 and 12 years old. And unlike most parents, mom chose to let them sit together, and she sat to the left of the younger sister. Interesting choice.
Throughout much of the mass, the younger sister clung to her mother with almost palpable sweetness, while the older sister tried to either get her attention or get her in trouble – not sure which. The older sister poked at her, drew on the wooden pew in front of her with a little golf pencil, and just generally acted as a nuisance. Regular sister stuff. This went on for about 30 minutes of the 60 minute service and I was supremely impressed with little sister’s sense of do-right-ness and ability to shrug off her older sister’s efforts to get her to goof off in church. But then, big sister pulled out the ultimate weapon. Cheetos.
For some reason, mom had left her purse between the two girls, and in it was a small Ziploc baggie full of Cheetos. Little sister’s sense of church manners went out the door and for the next twenty minutes or so, I watched as both little and big sister snuck skinny, orange cheese puff after skinny, orange cheese puff out of mom’s purse in stealthy slow motion. I must admit it was slightly amusing to watch each girl slither one little Cheeto out of the bag at a time, throwing a sideways glance at her mother, then her sister, every time before placing it in her mouth, and then chewing ever-so-slowly in order to muffle the crunch. It seemed so choreographed and something told me they had done this before. When my daughter caught sight of this little spectacle, she looked up at me with her fairly well-worn can-you-believe-they’re-doing-that look of disapproval.
See, my girl is a rule follower. She’s not a perfect angel. But she is, generally, a rule follower. And ever since pre-school she has been casting these can-you-believe-they’re-doing-that looks at her peers. She has tattled on one occasion or another, but mostly, she gives the look.
So as we sat there in church, I forced myself to be aware that I was alternately projecting looks of amusement and disappointment as I watched these two girls. And after church, when Elle verbalized the question her face had already so clearly posed – “Mom, can you believe those two girls were doing that in church?!” – I forced myself to be very aware of my response. Because I knew my daughter was very aware of my responses to everything. And our children will respond as we do.
So in those fractions of a moment before I answered her, I thought back to being 9 or 12 years old. I reminded myself that given the opportunity, I might have snuck a cheese puff or two out of my mom’s purse as well. I reminded myself of the 30 minutes that the younger sister had taken the high road, rather than the oh-so-low (not really) road of her elder and more jaded, cheeto-bearing sister. And rather than condemn the girls for their behavior, I asked Elle what she thought of what they were doing. She instantly softened when she found I wasn’t going to be a co-attacker of their manners. She did assert that they shouldn’t have done that, and I agreed. But I asked her if she had ever done anything – anything at all – that she shouldn’t have done. So she said of course she had because nobody is perfect. Then I asked her if she should steal Cheetos from my purse and eat them in church. And she said no, and we both laughed. And I asked her if, in the grand scheme of things, eating Cheetos in church would make a huge difference in the lives of these girls. And she said no, and we both laughed.
But I also reminded her that every time we see others doing something wrong, we have a decision to make. We can try to stop it. We can talk about them and attack them behind their backs. We can simply ignore it and refrain from engaging in the behavior. And of course, the decision to join in is always there as well. So the Cheeto-stealing church sisters provided us with a springboard to discuss how every moment offers us a choice to get closer to or further from the person we want to be, and that we should never sacrifice what we want most for what we want in a moment. And I reminded her that despite their Cheeto thievery, they were probably otherwise very nice girls, as I believe most people are. So leave it to me to turn something minor into a drawn-out teaching moment. But I know that these regular little, but really very big, conversations will shape her as she grows and help her to make the right choices, especially as the wrongdoings she witnesses will undoubtedly morph beyond Cheetos in church.
And if I may offer some advice, sit between your children in public places whenever possible.