The other day, my four-year-old, Sophie, came home from school and told me Mean Kid Who Comes Up a Lot in Conversation (henceforth just known as Mean Kid) called her ugly. She was tearful and confused, because we have so many conversations about being kind to others and about being careful with our words. (“They can really sting,” I told her. “Yeah,” she said. “Like a papercut.” Yes, exactly like that.) She climbed up on my lap, put her head on my shoulder and asked me why Mean Kid said what she said.
Here’s where things got dicey for me: Because I’m a writer and an editor, and I voraciously read parenting articles, I’ve read and internalized too many stories that tell me what to say to my kids. Don’t tell her she’s pretty. Don’t tell her she’s smart. Don’t tell her to be careful. Do tell her to be strong, but that it’s also okay to show emotion. Do tell her to think for herself. Sometimes. Not all the time. Because sometimes Mom and Dad know better.
The scenarios ran through my head, and my heart ached as she waited quietly for my reply. I wanted to do right by her, to find the best answer in the parenting-advice rolodex in my head. (I imagine it like an old-school card catalogue, in case you’re wondering.) But after a few minutes of rubbing Soph’s back while she sniffled, I involuntarily sighed and shook my head. “What, Mommy? What’s the matter?” she asked. And I threw all the experts out the window.
“Soph,” I said, “you are such a beautiful girl. Inside and out. You’re smart, and funny, and a wonderful big sister. But sometimes kids, and even adults, say mean things.” (I’m assuming I made at least four mistakes in that sentence.)
“Only Mean Kid knows why. Maybe she was having a bad day. Maybe she had an argument with someone and took it out on you. Maybe she didn’t like what she had for lunch.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“I know,” I said. “But we have to be kinder than we want to be sometimes. No one is ever allowed to hurt you, Soph, and you can stand up for yourself. But we also have to forgive people.”
“I don’t want to forgive her.” (Yeah, tell me about it, kid.)
“Well, you don’t have to forgive her right this second. But you should forgive her soon. I don’t think she meant what she said.”
Thoughtful pause. “Can I have a cookie?” Crisis averted.
There isn’t an epilogue to this story. Mean Kid is a known problem on the playground, and Sophie usually holds her own. I didn’t hear anything more about the situation after the cookie request. But I think the lesson learned here was just as much for me as it was for her.
When it comes down to it, no matter what we think we know, our first instinct is usually the right one. My parents managed to raise four kids without the internet, without access to experts via Twitter or Facebook, without the eternal second-guessing that too much outside influence provides. (I’m sure they second-guessed from time to time, but in the Age of Information where content moves at warp-speed, there’s much to doubt yourself on.) They had no choice but to rely on gut, and I often think maybe it was for the better.
My little girl needed to hear that Mean Kid was wrong, that she’s not ugly. Even if that meant eschewing whatever post I read that said otherwise. She also needed to hear that it wasn’t the end of the world, and that this wasn’t going to be the last time she’s called a name or has her character questioned. And in the future, if the advice I unearth from the rolodex in my head doesn’t feel right (though I’m sure it will sometimes), I’m just going to freestyle it with my heart instead. If this course of action can eventually get me from difficult subject to cookie, I call that a win.