Choose wisely.

“You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit,” a friend frequently tells her children. At issue is usually red popsicle vs. purple, or something similarly unimportant.

These behavioral guidelines are on my mind today as I think about my friend Elizabeth, whose inspiring story was published in our local paper this morning. The overly short version is this: eight years ago a physician told Elizabeth to go home and prepare to die; she had advanced metastatic breast cancer, diagnosed three months after a clear mammogram, and he gave her six months to live. For a couple of weeks the polite, well-mannered young woman took the old man in the white coat at his word and did what she’d been told. Then her stubborn, defiant inner child took over and threw a fit. Today she’s still at it.

Elizabeth and I are contemporaries, both raised by Junior League mothers and graduates of an all-girls school that required white gloves until shortly before Elizabeth and I started first grade. “Speak when spoken to” was the general rule. Fortunately our parents also respected in each of us a certain feisty, outspoken temperament. I realize now the essential requirement of shaping all these qualities, and I hear the echo of my mother’s favorite words: “Learn to choose your battles wisely.”

Do good manners require us to take something we don’t actually want? Is gracious deference incompatible with a sturdy backbone? How will a child be able to speak up in opposition, at critical times, if never allowed to practice?

The ability to stand up for yourself is as basic a life skill as learning to swim. You may navigate around water your entire life, but if you get pushed in a lake you’d better know what to do. Like learning to swim, social skills take practice. So if my children behave poorly when you offer them red popsicles, please help them learn to ask, “might I have purple instead?” Then I’ll work on the whole “lose the battle, win the war” thing. One day, I believe, it will actually matter.