Milton Bradley Chutes and Ladders game board c. 1952 showing good deeds and their rewards, and bad deeds and their consequences (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
“That dopey grin on your face can only mean one thing,” I said to my teenage son as he stared dreamily off into space.
“Huh?” He grinned at me, finding it entertaining that his mother thought she might possibly have a clue what went on in his head.
His eyes opened wide in surprise. “How did you know?”
“Moms know these things,” I smiled. “So… what’s up?”
He studied me for a moment, assessing whether I was worthy of his trust. “Just a minute.” He took off up the stairs.
He returned a minute later holding, of all things, a bible. Given that he wasn’t exactly the bible-toting type, this was definitely going to be interesting.
He turned to a bookmarked page in 1Peter, chapter 3, and handed the open bible to me. Over the page text, he had written in his best handwriting, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”
And at the bottom of the page, it said, “Homecoming with Keenan?” surrounded by a few little hearts.
“I plan to hand Natalie this bible tonight during youth group to ask her to homecoming,” he explained.
I was floored. This romantic proposal was coming from a boy who yelled in his dog’s ear, stole candy from his little sisters, and wouldn’t think twice about telling his mother to stick it where the sun didn’t shine. I also couldn’t believe he was confiding in his mother.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Oh, Keenan. This is the most thoughtful, romantic invitation I’ve ever seen. I’m so impressed! Any girl would be thrilled to be asked this way.”
He grinned. “Yeah? Do you think she’ll go for it?”
Realistically, his chance of receiving a ‘yes’ was about .02%. Natalie had been his pseudo-girlfriend over the summer (which meant no dates, no phone calls, just a few texts). But on the first day of school, she had told him she was just too busy to maintain a relationship (because a few texts are too time consuming? Huh.). It was his very first heartbreak.
“Well… you’re still broken up, right?” I asked in an attempt to gently nudge him back to reality.
“Yes, but I really want to ask her.”
Very, very sweet, but a bit of a dilemma. This was one of life’s learning experiences that was sure to go badly, and I felt my maternal protectionist instincts rearing up. But maybe a little rejection would add to his store of worldly wisdom and resilience. I sized up the hard shelled, unempathetic, socially awkward young man before me, and thought of the poor dog’s ear. Perhaps Keenan could use a little softening. Besides, this proposal was so beautiful, it just had to be shared. I decided I should prepare him with a little coaching on the potential outcomes.
“Well, one of two things will happen. Either she’ll say yes and you’ll be off to homecoming together, or she’ll say no, and you’ll experience the pain of rejection. If you can handle it either way, then I say go for it. Regardless of what happens, she will undoubtedly remember this incredibly romantic gesture for the rest of her life.”
He smiled at that thought, and wandered off to his room.
I was on pins and needles as I drove to pick him up after youth group that evening. As he opened the car door, his slumped shoulders told me all I needed to know. “So I take it her answer wasn’t what you were hoping for?” I asked carefully.
“No.” Long pause, heavy sigh. “She said she’s already going with a group of girlfriends.” Well, at least Natalie had the decency to let him down gently.
“Aw, bummer. But I guess that’s better than finding out she’s going with another boy, right?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“But did she smile as she read the note?”
He grinned. “Yeah.” Long pause. “And she kissed me on the cheek.”
Whoa! I resisted my overwhelming impulse to leap out of my seat and do the snoopy dance. I was thrilled that anyone would ever want to kiss this kid. But stay cool, mom, stay cool.
“Then it was all worth it. I’m proud of you, Keenan. It was really a beautiful proposal, and I’m sure she was very touched. A lot of guys wouldn’t have had the guts to take the risk. I know it probably doesn’t feel so good right now, but this is one of those things that will help you learn to understand girls and someday be a great husband. Which would be nice for me, so I’m not stuck washing your smelly socks for eternity.”
A chuckle. Thankfully, he still had a sense of humor.
Sweet are the fruits of adversity, if we can allow ourselves to taste them. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn as a mother is that failure is my children’s greatest teacher, and I have neither the power nor the right to take it away from them. Life is a game of multiple failures, like Chutes & Ladders: we slide down and climb back up again, over and over. Our work as parents is to teach our children how to fail, and then help them get back up until they can do it themselves. If we try to protect them from pain and difficulty, we are depriving them of the challenges that will help them grow physically, emotionally and intellectually. We should not shield them from life’s disappointments, but instead be there to help them deal with the obstacles life will inevitably present.
A few days later, I asked Keenan if he was feeling better about the situation with Natalie.
“Well, I’m actually thinking about asking another girl to homecoming,” he said confidently.
After a ride down the chute, he was already climbing back up the ladder, this time with just a bit more resilience.