I have my toddler daughter in the cart, flanked by two little boys, ages five and six. And I have no idea how my children will respond. Anyone who has ever had children knows that whatever they’re thinking often comes out of their mouths unfiltered. It’s one of their charms, but it can be unintentionally hurtful.
A memory presents itself: I am 14-years-old, babysitting for a four-year-old girl. When I take her to go potty, I decide we’ll play a color game. “Tell me something you see that’s blue,” I say, eyeing the blue hand towel hanging nearby. “The towel!” she exclaims triumphantly.
“What do you see that’s white?” I ask. “The toilet seat!” she says. “Tell me something that’s yellow,” I urge her to continue. “Your teeth,” she offers without apology.
There is a roll of light yellow toilet paper right beside her, and she decides to point out my teeth, an embarrassing blow for my adolescent ego even if it comes from the mouth of a brat. This is the lack of an appropriate filter that I am worried about as I walk down the painting supplies aisle.
A month before that moment, while shopping by myself for paint to redecorate our new home, I noticed a little man, a dwarf, working at the home improvement store. I made mental note of this, and thought, on another day when I have the children with me, I see this as a good opportunity to teach my children the appropriate response: Do not stare or say anything.
As I push the cart along the aisle to the paint section, I see the man coming. I hold my breath, and I pray a parent’s prayer:" Oh, Lord, please let them keep quiet." I see them checking out this fellow with curiosity, especially as he walks by the boys and they are eye-to-eye. I silently cheer as they say nothing, and in the car we talk about their response.
“So what do you guys think about that man?” I ask them, driving to our remodeling project. “He looks like a regular guy, only shorter,” the older, more thoughtful son says. “Mom, how’d he get like that?” the younger one inquires, so I do my best to explain. My daughter seems oblivious to the whole incident, combing her doll’s hair and singing a made-up tune.
During the next few trips to the home improvement store, we don’t see the man, and weeks later, in the busyness of remodeling, I forget about the little person working at Lowe’s until I see him walking toward us. No time for reminders; it's show time.
I prepare myself to be embarrassed and apologetic. The embarrassment part I'm pretty good at. I already tried unsuccessfully to quiet my daughter in the grocery store when she insisted on singing “Mommy’s got big nipples.” My only hope was that her toddler talk, complicated with a lisp, would make her unintelligible. I have apologized on behalf of my children for temper tantrums and messes made. I just wasn’t sure how to apologize without making the situation worse.
Though my daughter is consumed in her reading of the book "Goodnight, Moon" (upside down), the boys have noticed him, and I get ready for damage control. My breath catches in my throat. Will they forget and blurt out something inappropriate? He is coming down the aisle toward us, short legs striding purposefully. I smile uncomfortably and give him an acknowledging nod.
These boys are on the same physical level with the little person, so their perspective is different from mine, towering a foot-and-a-half higher. They could be noticing his beard, something their father doesn’t have. They might be noticing his strong arms, muscled and hairy, built up from lifting heavy paint cans on to high shelves. The boys might notice his shoes, how they are just about the same size as their own boots.
They continue looking at him, heads twisting to look behind them. When we are about six feet past him, my older son says, very matter-of-factly: “Well, we haven’t seen him in a while.” I smile inwardly; they need no coaching from me. We continue down the paint aisle, looking for the right primer, and my daughter starts to sing, “Mommy’s got big…”
It takes a village!
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