There was usually some recoiling. “You’re not worried about what they’ll track in?” a mom would ask, as she pulled a gallon-sized hand sanitizer out of her purse.
On the germ front, I feel pretty good about my stance—in almost six years, Sophie’s been sick twice and missed a grand total of one day of school. What she has brought into my home—there is no Handi Wipe for it.
I am very conscious of the power of words. I grew up with girls who were never explicitly criticized about their appearance, but whose mother’s own merciless dieting and ongoing commentary about being “good” or “bad” left an indelible scar. So I’ve been careful to always eat what Sophie’s eating—be it snap peas or ice cream—without talking about my body. Sophie has never heard her father or me use the word “fat” or criticize someone’s appearance. When Sophie started asking about obese people on the street, I would answer that we should send that person some love because they looked uncomfortable. I have tried to instill in her a language of empathy.
But I’ve learned I don’t get to pick some cute parenting strategy and think it will stick. Even in brownstone Brooklyn.
One night, at age 3, Sophie pushed her dinner away, her cherry tomatoes uneaten, and said, “I don’t want to get fat.” Sophie’s best friend’s mother works in fashion. Super fashion. Fashion Week fashion. First-name-basis-with-Anna-Wintour fashion. And she uses the common parlance of her job, and her daughter parrots her, and Sophie follows suit.
The little girl will walk through my home with a running commentary on her appearance, on food, on eating too much, and on everything she hates. “I hate pink hats, I hate Doc McStuffins, I hate dogs.”
“We don’t say ‘hate'” I try. “It’s not a nice word.”
And Sophie looks back over her shoulder, and I can tell she’s already torn between what I’m presenting and what her friend is offering, her friend who, let’s face it, even at 5 is already so much cooler than I am.
And I stand in the living room just flummoxed that “fat” and “hate” have been tracked into my apartment.
But that was the warm-up to the night I was tucking her in amongst her stuffed animals and she whispered, “Goodnight, n_____.”
“What?” I said.
She repeated it so my husband and I could confirm that we weren’t hallucinating, and then we dropped our voices into a register only whales could hear and said, “You may not EVER use that word again.”
We shut her door and stood out in the hallway, the walls covered in construction paper collages of her tiny handprints. What??? How had these words come into my home? My bastion of kindness and understanding?
David was about to get her headmistress on the phone. I scrambled to catch up to him. “No, no, no, she didn’t hear it at school.”
“How do you know?” he asked, afraid I was about to tell him I played her gangsta rap at bedtime or let her stay up to watch Empire. Her little parochial preschool was tucked into a side street of downtown Brooklyn at the cross-section of fast food and a multiplex. Teens cluster after school on the corners, shouting that word over her head as we wait for the light to change.
I sat on the floor, flummoxed. I knew that you can only curate your child’s world so much, or for so long, but this was all happening faster than I’d ever expected. I realized that I was going to need to give her more information about why we don’t use some words, as much as her age would allow.
The next night, I sat her down after dinner and said, “We don’t say ‘hate’ because we don’t hate anything. What we dislike is how that thing, or person, makes us feel. Maybe powerless, maybe frightened. What we don’t like is the feeling. But it’s our feeling. We can change that feeling.” She took that in, mulling it over. “And we don’t use the word you used last night because it’s hurtful.”
She thought about that too, and then asked, “Then why are the kids laughing when they say it?”
It was a fair question about a complicated situation, and I did my best to answer it. In the process, I had to grapple with my own discomfort, my own guilt. And that is the value of having children: having someone throw you off balance, force you to explain your beliefs, and defend them. In the long run, I know it will keep me from ossifying. And hopefully make our relationship stronger as she grows. In the meantime, I’m going to have Dove ads on in the background when her friend’s mom comes for pickup.