Picture the scene: My son (eight) and my daughter (three) are running around outside a mall, chasing each other and laughing and "getting their sillies out." This is something we do when they've been asked to sit for too long, be still for too long, act like a grown up for too long. We'd been visiting with family, and the kids sat through a long, kinda boring (for them) grown up chat. They needed to burn off some energy. So outside we went, where they could safely run on the grass and squeal and giggle and be, well, kids.
I saw them coming. I saw their orthopaedic shoes and their flowered blouses and their slow, painful gait. If I'd paid closer attention to their faces, which were pulled in like sour old prunes, maybe I could have stopped what happened next. But I didn't. I was too busy watching my kids, soaking in their joy and laughter, feeling grateful for their good health, just spending a mommy moment watching them with love.
And then ...
They passed my kids and moved on to their car. And my daughter ran to me, her face crumbling, her cheeks wet with tears.
"Mommy, that lady told me I'm a bad girl," she sobbed.
"What? What lady?" I asked, and she pointed her out. They were climbing into their car, and I had a flash of utter fury mixed with indecision. Do I go over and give that woman a piece of my mind? Or do I care for my daughter's hurting heart?
I chose my daughter. I held her while she cried, reassured her, cuddled her and wiped away her tears. It was the right thing to do, I know it. But I wish I could have split myself in two at that moment, I wish I could have spoken to that woman. I wish I could have shown her the damage her words had caused, and asked her what in the world gave her the right to speak unkindly to my child. And trust me, there are a lot of other things I would have liked to say, things that I wouldn't have been proud of later, but things that would have satisfied the mama-bear in me quite nicely in the moment.
Most of all, I wish she hadn't gotten away with it. Because she hurt my little girl, and I wish she knew. I wish she could feel it, for just a moment. And yes, I can speculate on the kind of pain and disappointment someone would have to experience in their life to justify verbally assaulting a child, but I'm not going there. I recognize it, but I don't excuse her behavior. I don't. I can't.
Because she did damage to something I've been desperately trying to repair.
Oh, my daughter. She's the kid who runs from morning to night. She laughs and dances and yells and screams and kisses and loves and riots and lives harder than anyone I've ever known. It's like she was given extra doses of just about everything, like her insides are on fire. She's shockingly strong-willed, which is challenging - but she's also painfully sensitive. She's desperate to please, and scared of making people mad. She's so afraid of disappointing us when the strong-willed part of her wins out. And she's also a three-year-old who looks like she's six, so strangers expect more of her. It doesn't help.
We're working so hard to let our daughter know we love and appreciate her for exactly who she is, while still curtailing the most outrageous or unsafe of her behaviors. We fight, every day, to parent her calmly and lovingly. To focus on behavior that needs correcting, rather than giving her the feeling that something is wrong with her as a person. We never, ever, tell our children they're bad. That cuts them down, and we're trying so hard to build them up. But all this time, all this parental effort - and a few cruel words knock us back three steps.
My daughter's only three. I doubt she'll remember this moment in her life, at least not consciously. But another part of me is certain, absolutely certain, that those words cut a permanent little wound on her sense of self. I can see it in her. I can see the damage I'll try to repair.
And though she'll likely forget, I never will. I wish I could go back in time and drop a bomb on that woman, truth be told. But I guess I'll have to satisfy myself by writing her into my next novel. So I can kill her off.