And although consequences and access through technology have heightened dangerously, this cornerless landscape of playing with power holds a vexing consistency that touches us all whether our daughters (or sons) are setting up the slam book, reading or writing in it or singularly resisting it. And all of us have our own memories about social power, be it invitations to parties, picking team members, saving seats or slam books. We all live through it. And as much as schools and families, then and now, rail against them, slam books, in whatever their configuration, will raise their ugly heads. The important thing is what we do when they do.
Of course, saying “no” is paramount; fully comprehended rules stand as a core foundation, and community standards must be held both high and dear. There can never be too much reminding and following up on these. But even more important is the building of integrity, and integrity is always two things to me: completely internal and purposely fragile. Integrity is something you can earn and lose, sometimes in equal measure. That’s what makes it live like a present participle, holding hands with words such as becoming or growing. And as important as rules and community standards are, integrity is larger, harder to come by and much, much more lasting.
Building integrity is the harder curriculum for parents and schools, but it is most important. Although your daughters will most likely and poignantly shift from seeking you as a guide to finding peers to be their Yoda, never forget that you still have the most significant role to play. At its heart, nurturing integrity takes a serious and an adult narrative of goodness, of doing the right thing. Poet Donald Hall wrote that it’s “hard to write about goodness.” And it is. But that shouldn’t stop us. Fearlessly using words such as beauty, truth and love put our children in the way of goodness while countering sarcasm, dismissal and even hate.
Building integrity also calls for patience and the hard understanding that young people can get it right one day and then astonishingly wrong the next. In regard to integrity, we should all wear “work in progress” signs around our necks, but certainly these placards should be readily available for our own children. And while we need to forgive transgressions, we also need to help our children truly own their behavior. I suspect that as parents we know exactly when our own daughters are struggling with integrity. My mom, who some days seemed to have supernatural powers, could always tell when I was out of integrity: when I tried to weasel out of a prom date I no longer wanted…when I was trading one playdate for what I thought was a better one…when I made fun of a classmate for her earnestness. And I was almost always right when I suspected my own children falling out of integrity. In our heart of hearts, we know. Listen hard for those opportunities to right the ship. Don’t deny it, don’t excuse it and don’t ignore it. It could be the most important work you do in the long run.
And integrity is the best building block I know for confidence because it is so interior. I like what Eleanor Roosevelt said to a friend, “Remember, dear, it takes two to feel inferior.” Developing integrity is developing self-agency, and, like a strong education, no one can take that away.
Can building integrity magically eliminate all the slam books in one’s life? No, but it can help stop you from believing in adolescent palaver as oracle. Again, in fifth grade, I was ready to believe anything written on my page. If it had said that I was “cool,” I would have thought that I had finally arrived; if it said I wasn’t, which was much more likely, I would have thought it not only descriptive but defining. Only a developing sense of integrity could battle against those slam pages, and that was something my mother understood. Let’s go back to that prom date from which I was trying hard to wiggle away. Truth be told, I wanted to go with someone else. Once my mother found me out, she presented me with my only two options: “You go as you said you would or you decline now and stay home.” I didn’t go to that prom, and sometime during that lonely night of watching television alone, I knew I was the better for it.