My 3-year-old dawdled behind me, wearing her signature
impish grin. She had a secret, and she
was letting me know. I played it cool
so as not to scare her off. I wanted to
know her secret, but I didn’t want her to know that. It was our version of cat and mouse.
“Mama,” she said as we made our way to the ladies' room of
the gigantic bounce house, “I learned a bad word today.”
I stopped breathing. Already? She’s only 3! What’d she learn?
Who is responsible for this? I
mustered the strength to keep up my cool mom act while my mind zoomed with
accusations and speculations.
I said, feigning boredom with the subject.
“I’ll tell you what it is when we get in the stall,” she
promised. That gave me about 25 seconds
to compose myself for the teachable moment that was staring me down. My job
is to listen, I reminded myself over and over so I wouldn’t cover up my
uncomfortable feelings with chatter.
“It starts with an ‘N,’” she whispered in my ear. My heart stopped. My pretense of calm slipped away. Please
tell me she said “m” and not “n.”
“What’s the word?” I said, hoping that I wouldn’t stroke out
or fumble when I heard her answer.
She giggled and blushed. I wanted her to tell me so we could talk about it. I wasn’t leaving that bathroom stall until
she told me what the N-word was.
In a voice just above a whisper, she said, “Negative.”
OHMYLORDTHANKYOUJESUS. I felt the blood return to my extremities as I gave her a big hug.
“Negative, huh? That’s the bad word?”
“Yes, the big kids were saying it over by the red slide.”
I had that euphoric, I-dodged-a-bullet feeling as we rejoined our friends back at the birthday party.
I was so primed for a discourse on race relations and
respectfulness that I had no idea where to begin with "negative." “Do you know what that means, sweetie?” She shook her head, and I thought about how to
explain it. I was going to just sum it
up by saying, “It’s basically the word to describe mommy’s worldview,” but that
seemed advanced for a preschooler.
We sat in the stall for a good five minutes while I tried to
describe negative as the opposite of positive. I juxtaposed chocolate and sunshine with bad manners and empty calorie
snacks. There’s no way she has any idea
what “negative” means, but I think I did make clear that it wasn’t a “bad”
I had that euphoric, I-dodged-a-bullet feeling as we
rejoined our friends back at the birthday party. I watched my daughter tumble and swoosh down
the slides and thought about the conversation that we will have one day about words that really are “bad” and hurtful and
that rip at the fabric of society.
Is it possible that
she’ll never learn those words? I
know it’s not, but I can’t help myself from wishing that the hardest word I’ll
ever have to explain is “negative” and that’s the only bad N-word that ever
crosses her lips.