Kids are picky. They don’t like this. They don’t like that. They need those to be exactly like them. But that can’t possibly be what John Lewis’s mother meant to encourage when she repeated her motto to her kids as they grew up. “Be particular,” she’d tell them.
What she meant, David Halberstam would write in his powerful book on the civil rights movement, The Children, was, “be careful, be responsible for yourself and always be well prepared.” This was a set of standards that she tried to hold her kids to not only when they were little but for all their lives. In the 1990s, when her son John had become Congressman John Lewis and was well into his fifties, she was still reminding them of her motto. When John faced off in a series of political fights with Newt Gingrich, Willie Mae Lewis called her son and said, “Now, Robert, I want you to be particular with that man.” Meaning again, as Halberstam writes, that, “he was to be careful in his criticism of Gingrich; any attack had better be factual.”
Not picky, but particular. Not peculiar, but particular. Be exacting. Get your facts straight. Own up to your duty. Don’t let anyone or anything excuse you from it. Do it well.
These are wonderful reminders to give our kids…but as always, it’s much more important that they see us living those lessons. Show them the difference between picky and particular, between factual and fatuous, between compromise and compromising your standards.
Show them what responsibility looks like. Show them how to be careful and to always be prepared. Because someday you won’t be here, and they will have kids of their own who will need to learn these very particular lessons from them.