Defending against (and taking care not to raise) a “mean kid”

Lily, on her first day of kindergarten.

Lily, on her first day of kindergarten.

Lily’s generally had a smooth, easy transition into kindergarten, but in the middle of the night, after maybe only her 3rd or 4th day, she awoke from a bad dream; and when she couldn’t go back to sleep right away, she started to tell me about what a mean older girl had said to her as she waited for the bus after school.

“She said my teacher was Mrs. Ugly,” Lily said, starting to cry. “And she said I jump like this.” Lily climbed down from her bed and stood, tossing her arms up while her feet just barely left the ground.

Oh, sweetie.

Though my outgoing girl is brave in many ways – she climbed the steps of a 12-foot inflatable slide by herself shortly after turning 2 – she’s about as thick-skinned as a paper doll (as are nearly all boys and girls her age, of course).

And as we all acknowledge, with a slow-boiling dread, the big, bad world is not for the faint of heart, and sending your little one out into that world for the first time is a profound, if inevitable, act of trust.

Which is to say, you best not mess with my little girl, world. But more on that later.

“Lily, your teacher is brand new to your school this year,” I said. “So the girl who said this to you, she doesn’t even know Mrs. M. She probably has no idea what she even looks like. So she’s just calling her Mrs. Ugly to upset you. Same with the jumping thing. This girl doesn’t know what you’re capable of. She doesn’t know anything about you – how well you can paint and draw, and what a great big sister you are, all that stuff. She’s saying these things without knowing what she’s talking about, which means they’re meaningless.”

“But why did she say those things?”

“Well, that’s a hard question. I don’t know why she was mean to you. Sometimes people are mean because they don’t feel good about themselves, and they feel better if they pick on someone else. Sometimes they’re upset about something that has nothing to do with you, but they feel angry and they take it on you. At work, I get people who say mean things to me sometimes, too.”

Lily shifted gears and got concerned on my behalf all the sudden. “Who’s mean to you? What do they say?”

My heart melted even more. Even in Lily’s own moment of distress, she felt protective of me. Continue reading

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Critics, Hitler, and other “bad guys”

This is a pretty close approximation of my appearance while finishing up a late night theater review, actually.

Last weekend, we had a couple of tough conversations with Lily.

Just weeks shy of turning four, she has fully arrived at the endearing, but exhausting, stage wherein she has a million questions about everything, all the time.

And the questions cut a little too close to home, in a comical way, as she watched portions of what she calls “the movie about the rat who likes to cook”: Pixar’s “Ratatouille.”

You may remember that in the film, a tall, menacingly angular and humorless food critic named Anton Ego, voiced by Peter O’Toole, poses a threat to Remy (the rat) and his human collaborator, Linguini. In one scene, Linguini has inherited a restaurant and is holding court at a press conference that’s disrupted when Ego makes a Darth Vader-like entrance.

“Is he a bad guy?” Lily asked.

“Well, yes and no,” I said, knowing that as a working theater critic, I might want to tread lightly here. “He seems kind of mean, and a lot of people are scared of him.”

“Why?”

“Because he goes to different restaurants, eats the food, and then writes about what he thinks of the food so other people can decide if it’s a restaurant they might want to go to or not.” Pause. Gulp. Here goes. “It’s the same thing that Mommy does when I go to see shows at night. I write about what I think about the play, and other people read it.”

“But why are people scared of him?”

“Because his opinions, what he thinks, can at least partly affect whether a restaurant succeeds or not. For better or worse, people listen to him. And he’s intimidating because he has very high standards, and he’s honest, no matter what. So if he thinks someone’s food isn’t that great, he’s going to say so, even if people don’t like him for saying so.”

(Wait – who were we talking about? Oh, that’s right. Anton Ego. Right.)

In this moment, I had the sensation of being on a therapist’s couch while simultaneously talking to my 3 year old. Or at the very least, talking to Lucy Van Pelt as she sat in a booth behind a sign that reads, “The doctor is IN.” Continue reading