July 31, 2011

Full Disclosure

It seems like the topic of the moment for me is What Not To Say to my three-year-old.

I don't have much of a filter. I do have one, but apparently it's a different brand of filter than everybody else is using. I was the kid in grade school reading Forever by Judy Blume and The Color Purple by Alice Walker (this actually got confiscated from me in third grade because the teacher didn't believe I was allowed to have it). Although my mom and I went through a bit of a religious phase when I was in high school, most of my upbringing was pretty feminist and direct.

Now that I have a kid who can talk I am confronted with the question of how much actually needs to be said. We don't swear around our kids. We don't allow our kids to watch adult TV. But if she asks me a question I answer it. And I say what's on my mind.

Let's break down some recent events:

1) On the show Go, Diego, Go! a jaguar and a duck were singing about how nice it is to be friends. I said "In real life that jaguar would eat that duck." My mom turned to me in horror and said that was a terrible thing to say to a three-year-old. Was it? My husband hunts and fishes. Exactly how long is my daughter going to make it through life thinking ducks and jaguars can pal around happily?

A counterpoint to this: when we visited the new butterfly exhibit at the zoo recently my daughter killed a butterfly. She didn't mean to. When we entered the exhibit the guide told us the butterflies may land on us but we absolutely were not allowed to touch the butterflies. I repeated this to Bethany at eye level, making sure she understood. The minute we entered something happened. I'm not exactly sure what. I think the butterfly flew down by her feet and she sort of stepped on it or kicked it or something. But the dead butterfly ended up in her hand.

I took her out of there, and led her (and my screaming infant) down the path a ways to a place where we had some privacy. I put the baby in the stroller and sat down on the ground to have a talk with her. I explained that the butterfly was alive when we walked in but now it was dead because she touched it. The lady told her she wasn't allowed to touch the butterflies and she did anyway, and now the butterfly was dead. She didn't seem too concerned so I asked if she felt sad that she killed the butterfly. She said no. I told her she should feel sad, and that we always need to be gentle with anything that is alive. If we hurt something or someone it should make us feel sad.

I wasn't yelling at her. I was having a frank conversation about what had occurred. I gave her a big hug and kiss, told her I loved her very much, and we went on to have a fun time during the rest of our visit at the zoo. The next week I took her back and we went through the butterfly exhibit without incident.

How else is she going to understand these things? Sometimes emotions and situations that may seem obvious to us are confusing to small kids.

2) A few days before my hysterectomy, I was explaining to Bethany that mommy was going to be in the hospital for a few days. I told her that the place in my tummy where she and her brother had lived was broken and the doctor had to cut my tummy open to take it out. I showed her a couple of pictures online of where the uterus is. I told her that yes, it was going to hurt but mommy would be okay and I'd get better.

This time it was my husband whose jaw was on the floor. He said "Why can't you just tell her you're going to the hospital and that your tummy is going to be sore for a while but you'll be fine?"

I dunno. That's just who I am. When I got home from the hospital she asked if she could see my owie and I yanked my pants down without a second thought. She looked appalled at first but she's seen it several times now and it doesn't phase her anymore.

3) An acquaintance was telling me about how her nine-year-old asked about condoms in the grocery store and she didn't know what to say. I thought about it later and went, wow, by the time my kids are nine I'm pretty sure they are going to know all that stuff. I'm also pretty sure that if my three-year-old asked me about condoms I would say "Those are called condoms." If pressed for more detail I'd say "Grown-ups use them for making babies." I might roll my eyes but I wouldn't break a sweat over it.

Am I doing the right thing? Should I shelter her more? I know I'm not going to change because this stuff just comes out without much thought. I don't consciously register a difference between "What's that?" "A bunny" and "What's that?" "A condom." Somebody else has to bring it to my attention in order for me to second guess it.

I'm down with Santa and all that kind of stuff. I don't want to destroy the magic of childhood. I just don't feel like I'm doing her any favors by letting her think a duck and a jaguar could be pals, or by not emphasizing the gravity of killing a living thing. Yes, we hunt and fish but it is for meat, not for trophies. I believe this is a much more humane way to get meat than to raise animals for food in cramped little stalls, but I guess that's a whole different post.

What's going to give her more nightmares: wondering why that butterfly stopped moving and the zookeepers were glaring at us, or knowing why the butterfly stopped moving and wondering what happens when something dies? Poof! She's caught up with the rest of us.     

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