I waited for my daughter in the school’s courtyard on her last day of class, chatting with the other moms about summer plans. Our family’s plans included little more than long, lazy days at the beach and some ballet lessons.
“What else?” one mom asked expectantly.
“That’s it,” I responded, garnering a look of disapproval.
“But what will you do with her the rest of the time?” she inquired.
“Well, we’ll swim, hike, play with her cousins, cook, shop, hang out…” I trailed off when the other mom wandered over to talk to another group, too disappointed in my lack of scheduled summer activities to even feign enthusiasm. I shrugged and went to fetch my kid and take her to do nothing in particular.
This week the whole family filed into a pew of the Presbyterian church that runs the kiddo’s preschool for her final Christmas recital as a preschooler — oh, how the time flies. It was an emotional roller coaster for me; I vacillated between pride and a bitter-sweetness that brought tears to my eyes and uncontrollable giggles at the adorably animated performers. I began to wonder if the manner in which each child performed on stage predicted something about his or her personality or how he or she will approach the world in the future. There were some very specific types of singers on stage:
The Deer in the Headlights: These are usually the younger children on the stage who are nervous and/or shy and stare unblinkingly at a chosen spot in the audience rather than sing. If onstage behavior predicts future behavior, these children will grow up to be fantastic at staring contests and well qualified for any profession that requires them to keep their eyes open for a long period of time (graveyard shifts, perhaps), but you probably won’t want to call on them in emergency situations.
Hailey’s grandparents and aunt took her and her cousins to the aquarium yesterday. When they picked Hailey up in the morning, my almost 3-year-old nephew’s first words to me were, “My daddy farts. And mommy poops. A LOT.” Oh boy, I thought. His mommy will be thrilled to know this is how he greets people now. Then Hailey felt compelled to chime in: “My mommy…” “My mommy…” she began a couple of times. Where’s she going to go with this? I wondered, a little nervously. “I used to live in my mommy’s tummy,” she finished. Phew. I really dodged a bullet there. She could have gone any number of embarrassing places. At 4, Hailey is not yet able to filter the information that stays at home and that which can be shared with the world. Below are the five stories I’m a little terrified she’ll share in public someday.
1. Naked wrestling. Josh is really into MMA and watches UFC fights, mostly out of the house with his friends, but every once in a while at home after Hailey has gone to bed. Hailey is moderately aware of Josh’s interest. She knows what UFC is and she’ll peer over daddy’s shoulder when he’s reading highlights of the fights on his phone or laptop. Since the men are shirtless when they fight, Hailey calls it “naked wrestling,” and she’ll say things like, “I want the guy in the black chonies (undies) to win!” Or, “Is Daddy watching naked wrestling with Raul tonight?” Sometimes she’ll even challenge daddy to a naked wrestling fight. I’m very worried that someday authorities will show up at my door because Hailey shared with her teachers or classmates that she naked wrestles at home.
2. Where’s the chingadera? Josh and I refer to the remote control, or pretty much anything we can never find, as “the chingadera’ — loosely translated: that fucking thing. When Hailey started talking and Josh and I put our potty mouths on lock down, we forgot this one. As a result, guess what Hailey calls the remote: the chingadera. Example: “Mom, can I watch Strawberry Shortcake? I think the chingadera is on the couch.” I really should put the kibosh on this, but the Spanish speaking side of me chuckles ever time she says this and the English speaking side is none the wiser. But now Hailey’s reached the age where she could have a play date with a bilingual friend and refer to a soccer ball or a sand bucket as “the chingadera,” and that child’s parents will judge me. They’ll judge me good.
3. Any information about our dogs. Our dogs Bella and Chewie are our fourth and fifth members of the family. And when your pets are so integrated into the family you have ample opportunity to witness nature in all its glory and all its grossness. In the last year I’ve had to have a frank but nonthreatening talk with Hailey about dog erections, which inspired a shadow puppet show. We’ve discussed why dogs don’t use toilet paper. I’ll let you arrive at your own conclusions about how that conversation went, but I will say, Hailey’s reaction was, “Are you serious, Mom?” We also had an impromptu conversation about why puppies come out of dogs’ butts vaginas. Still considering getting that puppy for your child?
4. Poop. We talk about poop a lot in our house. We say the word “poop” a lot in our house. Both Josh’s family and my family are afflicted with various distressing gastrointestinal conditions. Hailey did not hit the genetic jackpot in this respect. Someday she will talk about poop a lot with her own family. Already, she has picked up on our lack of discretion about poop talk. I had to censor her four or five times on our last play date.
5. How we feel about our neighbors and a couple of other folks. We have nice neighbors on one side of us and jerks on the other side of us. Sometimes when we’re talking about our nasty neighbors or anyone else we don’t happen to care for, we forget that Hailey sometimes overhears us talking and is taking it all in. Every once in a while she’ll distinguish our neighbors as, “the ones we like” and “the ones we don’t like.” I’m a little afraid that she might spill the beans on this one, not because she’ll offend the neighbors — I’m sure they know how we feel about them — but because at 4 she isn’t ready to feel the emotions associated with telling someone, “we don’t like you.” Also, it’s inappropriate for a 4-year-old to divide people into “like” and “dislike” columns. Let’s save that for middle school.
So how do you stop a 4-year-old from sharing the family stories with the world? Do you do as my mom did and put the fear in your children that you NEVER talk about family stuff outside of the house? No, I don’t think so. I will often gently remind Hailey that some things are okay to talk about at home but not at school or at the park. Just the other night we were saying prayers and she said “poop” (of course she did), and we took the opportunity to talk about the moments when it is important to be respectful. Does it sink in? A little, I’d say. Keeping the conversation short and sweet is key. You cannot harangue a preschooler. I think so much depends on us as parents too. Josh and I will have to encourage Hailey to rename naked wrestling and confine our complaints about the neighbors to the hours after her bedtime. I think, sadly, we might even have to rename the chingadera. I suppose you eventually have to let go of some of the things that make for cute stories in the home once your child ventures out of the home. Cute stories they may be, but kids grow up and parents have to grow up right along with them.
As a parent, there’s no shortage of opportunities to say to your child: “What are you doing?” “What is that?” “What’s happening?” “Where are your pants?” and so forth. I most likely asked my child at least two of these questions on any given day last week. These queries are the common refrain of parenting, the chorus that you hear at any playground, mall or amusement park. What breaks up the chorus though, and makes parenting so joyous, are the moments that make you say, “Wow.” Wow, my child inspires me. Wow, my daughter is so kind. Wow, she surprised me today. The wow moments are the special links between you and your child, the small but meaningful opportunities throughout the day in which she feels pride in herself and you are equally amazed by her. These moments are the life raft of parenting that float us through the sea of chauffeuring our children to soccer games and play dates; spills and bedtime tantrums; their refusal to wear pants and brush hair; and our feeling tired, overextended and frumpy.
I had a couple of these wow moments last week. My daughter has her first best friend, Millie. Hailey and Millie are classmates and have become really close throughout the school year. They do the typical 4-year-old best friend things: Run around to see who’s fastest, climb trees, play Mommy and walk around holding hands (which is so precious I say, “Eeeeeeeeee” every time I see this). On a recent trip to the park together, Millie scraped her foot, which began to bleed, and was very upset about it. While Millie’s nanny ran to the car to find a Bandaid, Millie was verging on hysterics. It was in that moment, that I first witnessed my child’s ability to console, to empathize, to care for her friend. She sat down next to Millie, rubbed her back, spoke quietly and soothingly, gave her sips of water and then poured some water on Millie’s scrape. By the time Millie’s nanny returned with the Bandaid, Millie was smiling. I was so proud. Small side note: Sometimes when I’m trying to minimize the drama associated with a “boo boo” I’ll make light of it and tell Hailey to “rub some dirt on it.” When Hailey was trying to console Millie, she whispered to her, “Sometimes my mommy tells me to rub dirt on my boo boos. I think that might help.” End side note.
Hailey has always had a tough time with transitions, so I knew the last day of school would be difficult for her. When it came last week, it ended up going well until it came time to say goodbye to Millie. Hailey and Millie will be playing together all summer and they will be in the same class next year. Nevertheless, when we said goodbye to Millie on the last day of school, Hailey’s eyes filled with huge tears and she refused to say goodbye. Instead she ran to a bench and buried her head in her arms. Millie walked up to Hailey, arms extended, asking for a hug. Hailey shook her head in refusal. Millie walked away with her nanny, dejected. Millie’s nanny and I didn’t intervene, letting the situation unfold and the feelings be felt. Hailey sadly watched Millie walk away. When Millie rounded the corner of the building, Hailey bellowed, “Millieeeeeeeeeeeee!” and ran to her. Millie came running around the corner to Hailey, both had arms outstretched, and they collided into an embrace that lasted about 30 seconds. Joy. Just joy all the way around.
And I’ll be riding those wow moments through the next few weeks. What are your wow moments?
I believe in having an honest dialog with my daughter about almost everything. Dog erections? I think I handled that Q&A candidly and quite nicely. Jesus? God? What is everything all about? Well, that’s an ongoing conversation. But we address Hailey’s questions with honesty as they arise. There are some things, though, that I don’t mind flat out lying to my child about. I call it lying with love. Below are the biggest and most frequent lies I tell Hailey. I hope someday when the truth is revealed, she’ll look back at this post and know that these fallacies were my attempt to keep her childhood as innocent as possible for as long as possible.
Everything will be okay. This is a common refrain among mothers. A favorite toy is lost, her best friend chose to play with someone else during playtime, she’s going to have new teachers and classmates next year — everything will be okay. At some point in her life, there will come a time when something will not be okay, but my 4-year-old does not need to know this. For now, she needs to know that the small obstacles in her life are just that, small, and she has the strength, resourcefulness, intellect and humor to navigate these challenges.
Death is just a visit to the van down by the river. After reading a few Disney books to Hailey, we realized that they use death as a plot device A LOT. Within the first few pages, parents die and children are orphaned. This seems overly tragic for children’s bedtime reading material. I don’t know when the time is right to have the death talk with Hailey, but I know that she is not emotionally ready to learn that her parents will die someday. She knows that some relatives are no longer here and live in Heaven, and in her mind, she has interpreted this to mean they live in outer space. Sometimes she will say to random people, “My grandpa Bruce lives in outer space.” I’m okay with this for now. It’s part of her strange charm. But when we read Disney books or any other morbid children’s literature to her (Secret Garden, I’m looking at you), we replace any mention of death with the old Chris Farley bit about the van down by the river. It goes something like this, “Cinderella’s mother died went to the van down by the river, so her father married a wicked woman who became her stepmother.” Similarly, having two dogs, and one that’s getting up there in age, we have told Hailey that when dogs get very old they go to a lovely place called Puppy Lake. Sometimes she threatens to send them there early when they misbehave. This makes me feel bad for them because I know that she’s unknowingly wishing death upon them.
Trolls live under bridges. I don’t know, people. I lived in Seattle briefly and there’s a statue of a troll under a bridge in Fremont and I loved it…so I always associate trolls with bridges. So one time Hailey and I were crossing a bridge and I told her trolls live under bridges and she was fascinated. Now she looks for trolls every time we cross a bridge. She gets a kick out of it; sometimes she thinks she spots one and sometimes she asks why we don’t see more. “Because they’re shy and they mostly sleep during the day,” I explain. She’s satisfied with this answer, but still hopes to find one awake and about during the day. I think childhood should be whimsical and full of make believe. Some kids can read at 4. My kid hunts for trolls under bridges.
Everything will be fine in the morning.This is a lie my mom used to tell me. And although I’m old enough now to know it’s not true — 8 hours of sleep doesn’t solve your problems — I still find it to be good advice and partly true. In my experience everything always seems worse in the middle of the night. A good night’s sleep and looking at your problem with a fresh perspective in the morning does often help and does indeed make your problem seem less dire. So, sleep on it, my dear. Always sleep on it.
Fruits and veggies make you big and strong. I’m not disputing that fruits and veggies are good for your overall nutrition and health, but Hailey is obsessed with growing taller and stronger. I imagine her height will have more to do with genetics than anything and her strength is likely impacted more by her protein intake and exercise. Nonetheless, every time I put a new or less than favorite fruit or veggie on her plate, I ask her to try it because it will make her big and strong.
Mommy will always be here. Hailey is attached to mommy and this can cause her a bit of anxiety when she is separated from mommy for a long period of time. These situations usually require a pep talk, and the pep talk always ends the same way: “At the end of the day, mommy will always be here. Mommy is never going anywhere. You will always come home to mommy.” With these words, Hailey holds her chin high and marches into the great unknown. Each time I say it I wonder, what if I have an emergency someday? What if I get called away? Go out of town? Surely, I can’t be here all the time. What happens when I go to the van down by the river and break my promise of always being here? I hope by then she will be much, much older and wiser and telling loving lies to her own children.
Santa is real. The Easter Bunny is for suckers. When I was 5 I had a friend whose parents’ parenting philosophy was to never to lie to their children. Thus, their kids were never allowed to believe in Santa. The problem with this is that kids have big mouths, and this friend broke the news to me about Santa when I was 5. I barely got to lucidly believe in Santa for more than a couple of years. My kid believes in Santa. Santa is magical, and as I said, I think childhood should be full of whimsy. From Thanksgiving through New Years, Santa, reindeer with red noses, snowmen who talk, elves — they’re all real in our house. Now, the Easter Bunny…I’ve done a shit job of explaining that guy, mostly because I don’t understand him myself. “Why is he giant?” Hailey asks. “I don’t know.” “Why does a bunny have eggs?” she asks. “That’s a good question. It makes no sense,” I say.
Mommy’s iPad only works for 20 minutes at a time. Praise the Lord for YouTube parental settings and its glorious timer or my child would be lost in a trance of Hobby Kids TV, Disney Collector BR and Peppa Pig for hours at a time. And mommy can’t stand those little Hobby Kids. So when the timer shuts the iPad off and Hailey snaps out of her trance and yelps in protest as the fog lifts, I say, “Sorry honey, mommy’s iPad only works for 20 minutes and then I have to charge it. You can earn more iPad time for tomorrow.”
I’d love to hear the lies of love other mommies tell their children.
Hailey’s best friend in the whole world is her cousin Grayson. Even at the tender ages of 4 and 2 1/2, respectively, they seem to complement each other perfectly. Hailey is shy. Grayson is boisterous. Hailey is a listener. Grayson is a motormouth. Hailey is daring. Grayson is cautious. It’s this last difference that becomes most apparent when they’re out in the world together. Grayson takes his time with things and is a little more fearful of new things than Hailey, yet he seems to draw confidence from Hailey being by his side. And Hailey, in turn, is less shy when Grayson is around.
Recently, Grayson and his parents joined us at Hailey’s school carnival. Grayson desperately wanted to climb a tree, but Hailey had her eye on a bowling game and ignored his pleas for her to join him. “Hailey! Hailey! Hailey!” Grayson chanted, refusing to go near the tree without her. Finally, he ran over to her and grabbed her hand and escorted her over to the tree. “Hailey, I neeeeeeed you,” he said. “You’re my courage.”
My eyes filled with tears at this simple but profound statement from my beautiful little nephew. (Full disclosure: It doesn’t take a lot to make me cry.) At first I was moved by these words because they expressed such a deep and loving bond between my daughter and her cousin. But as the days passed and I reflected back on that moment, it was clear that the moment touched me for reasons much deeper than that. I was in awe of Grayson’s ability, at 2 1/2, to identify and put words to his emotional needs better than most adults. “I need you, Hailey. You’re my courage.” How direct. How powerful.
This made me wonder why as adults, we can’t learn from our children’s emotional directness and try saying those three simple words: “I need you.” Why do we feel the need to be passive aggressive? Why do we hold on to hurt feelings until we are bitter and resentful? Why do we try to do it all until we are stressed and overwhelmed? When it comes to saying what we mean and asking for what we want, children seem to have the answer. The other night, Hailey climbed into our bed and asked me to come to her bed with her. When I took her back to her bed I asked her, “Why did you come get mommy? Did you have a bad dream?” “No,” she said. “I just felt like I needed my mommy to cuddle me extra tonight.” We cuddled extra for the next half hour.
I suppose hundreds of self help books and psychotherapists have drilled into us the dangers of codependency, of “needing” someone else too much. Society has taught us to be self-reliant. We take pride in doing it all ourselves. But how rewarding would it be to have authentic relationships based on saying what we mean and asking for what we need. I, for one, will try to say: