Yikes.It's been a banner couple of weeks. Our 3-year-old daughter is thriving, happy and learning world-class communication skills. But as soon as my husband and I think she's well on the road to becoming a functioning member of society, she twirls around on her swing like a dame in distress and leers at her friend, who is a boy. (I attribute this to the Pretty Pink Princess Menace that's taken over my daughter. And my anxiety about how it could be informing her ideas of what a girl is. But that's for another post.)
Read More: The Day My 5-Year-Old Dropped the F-bomb
And then there was the day that she thought a naked romp through the backyard also meant a free-for-all when it came to bodily functions. She had mentioned she wanted a penis so that she could pee outside, like one of her friends does. But she never mentioned that she wanted to get retro with scat and fertilize our magnolia tree. (I guess I can't attribute that one to the princess phase.) Still, it's just poop. No big deal.
Read More: Language Development: It's All in the Eyes
But at a recent outing at the library a12-year-old girl flashed a sweet smile at my daughter, and in response my daughter said: "Fat." The girl, who was overweight, became enraged.
My spouse and I can fix princess-obsession problems. We can fix pooping-in-the-wild problems. But instilling a strong sense of empathy in your child for others is a little trickier, especially when you want to believe that your kid means no harm. Because at age 3, she really doesn't. But as the 12-year-old girl pointed out to me, that doesn't matter: She needs to learn that words can be used as weapons.
And, yes, I was dressed down by a 12 year old -- a 12 year old who, rightly so, wasn't taking any crap about her image. Even from a 3 year old.
So in the car my daughter and I had a lengthy talk about the word, "fat." We discussed how it could make someone feel bad to call him or her fat. We reviewed that everyone comes in different sizes and shapes. And we imagined how we might feel if someone called us a name that made us feel awful, maybe even causing us to cry. In short, we covered the empathy spectrum and exercised our ability to inhabit the perspective of someone else.
And then we got home and my daughter, an early reader, settled on the floor with her library pick, "Three Cheers for Pooh," and read out loud the chapter heading:
"Our Teddy Bear Is Short and Fat." A quizzical look followed.
That's when I realized that the linguistic battle with words wasn't over; it had only just begun.
Top Stories About Kids and Language
The Day My 5-Year-Old Dropped the F-bomb
Language Development: It's All in the Eyes
Parents Don't Want Doctors to Say That Kids are Fat