“Mama, Lily says you’re mean, she’s mad at you,” Jasper whispered to me in that way only six-year-old boys whisper to get their sisters in trouble, as in not a whisper at all.

“Well, that’s okay, she can be mad,” I responded as I righted a chair and picked up some drawings from the floor. “It’s up to her dad and me to make the right decisions even if she doesn’t agree with them. I’m her parent, honey, not her best friend.”

“Well you should try a lot harder to be her best friend,” snapped my daughter’s actual friend who was over for a spend-the-night. 

I was in shell shock from the spend-the-night, flat out exhausted and I’m sure my face was scrinched up in a permanent, what-the-heck-universe-am-I-in look!

It began when Lily and I picked up her friend. “Do you have any foods you don’t like, honey?” I asked the child. We were on our way to the store to get fixings for dinner.

“Nope I’m easy. Well, I HATE beets, beets make you look like you peed blood I mean my God, one night my mom ate beets and she forgot to flush the toilet and I saw a massacre in the bathroom. ‘Mom did you get your damn period or something?’ I yelled at her. It looked like she had her period all over the damn bathroom!”

“Oh my God, Lily!” She changed topics faster than an auctioneer. “You have to listen to these songs. One’s really emo. I’m an emo, I mean not like the kind of serious emo who cuts and stuff. You do know what cutting is, don’t you Lily?” 

Holy shit! What? What do I do? Help!! Abort playdate! Abort playdate!

“Where did you learn about cutting, honey, cause that’s a pretty serious subject matter?” I asked. 

“Oh it was in a movie I watched. We’re allowed to watch whatever we want at my house. Oh my GOD this bag is effing heavy!” She screamed as she picked up her tiny suitcase. “I mean I don’t want to swear or anything but this is F heavy!” she yelled. I watched, too stunned to reply, still trying to absorb all that was her. 

The girls ran into the house to play, and I tried to calm myself while I made a mental note to talk to Lily later about periods and cutting. She and I had talked about periods and the biological difference between boys and girls, but not a ton, she was eight and a young eight at that. 

There I was again walking Fine Line of Parenting #7,269, the one where you attempt to figure out when it’s appropriate to teach your kids certain things. Lordy was I unprepared for this whirlwind blowing through my house. Cutting at eight?! 

That afternoon the girls wanted to cook, but we had different ideas about what kind of “cooking” they’d get to do. “Soup, we’re making soup. We made it when Lily came to my house and we’ll make it here,” she demanded with her hands on her hips. I almost got confused for a moment about who was the parent.

“Sorry girls,” I said, shaking myself out of my fog. “I have spaghetti sauce and pasta to make for dinner, you can make stuff with fruit or desserts. Those are your options.”

They, or rather, she decided for both girls that they wouldn’t cook at all then. As they were leaving the kitchen she watched me put my apron on and said, “My mom never wears an apron, she doesn’t need one.” And with a Scarlett O’Hara flourish, she disappeared.

When I called the kids to dinner, Lily’s friend arrived at the table with a scowl on her face and began chowing on her noodles, while Lily sat sobbing over her bowl of spaghetti.

“W-What happened?” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. 

“Lily owes me a big fat apology!” her friend demanded. She finished her food and left the table. “She wouldn’t play my game!” 

“Excuse me?” I said. I was OVER this kid’s attitude. It was only 7 o’clock and I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet. Plus, I’m not known for my patience.

“Where I come from, you at least try the other person’s game.” Mmm hmm, the devil in me thought, I just bet you always try the other person’s game.

“Now that’s not the whole story,” Greg, my husband, said. “What happened, Lily? I found you by yourself on the stairs crying.”

Through her tears she managed to say, “She wanted to play her game, but I don’t like that game because she always yells at me when we play it. Now she’s ignoring me cause I don’t want to play it.”

I try to get my kids to play each other’s games because that’s how life is sometimes, right? We take turns; we compromise. But before I could speak, Greg said, “Well, I think if you don’t want to play something, or if it makes you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to play it.” Jeesh! He’s right, I thought.

“And you’re miserable, crying over your dinner in your own home, which isn’t good. So do we need to end the play date?”

Yes! Yes please. I thought. I’ll drive that kid home right now.

“No!” Lily cried.

“Well, we need to figure out what happened and move on then, and if we can’t then it’s time for your friend to go home.”

“I already said, she owes me a big fat apology,” her friend demanded again.

“I disagree,” said Greg. 

Go Greg, go! I mentally cheered.

“Well, she wouldn’t even play my game so she owes me.”

“See,” Greg calmly interrupted her. “I’m trying to teach my daughter to say, ‘No.’ if something bothers her, and you’re making her feel badly about that. So we either need to talk about this or it’s time for you to go home. Do you want to go home?” I was impressed, he was so calm, but firm.

“No,” she said. Wait, what? I turned to look at her.

“Okay, then, you both need to learn that it’s not okay to pressure someone into doing something they don’t want to do.”

“Do you want to go play upstairs?” Lily sat down next to her friend and whispered.

“Yes,” the girl smiled and they jumped up.

“Wait,” I said. “Are you two okay now?” I asked.

“Yes,” they squealed in unison, all tears and thoughts of apologies gone.

“Before you go I need you to listen. It is okay to take turns and try each other’s games if you’re comfortable with it. But just because someone doesn’t want to play your game doesn’t mean they should apologize, okay?”

“Okay,” they both said as if they had no clue what I was talking about.

“More importantly, like Greg said, it is okay to say, ‘No.’ if something makes you uncomfortable. I want you both to learn that, do you understand?”

“Yes.” And they flew upstairs. 

I snuck into the kitchen to hide. Greg poured us each a glass of red whine, I mean wine. “Whew,” I said and sat down on one of the stools. “I’m not cut out for this. Thank goodness you were being all mature and calm.”

“I didn’t feel calm,” he said. “I was absolutely ready to take her home.”

“I’d like to say I’m never having that child over to my house again, but if she and Lily stay friends I’d rather have her come here so I can monitor what’s going on and what they are exposed to.”

“Exactly,” Greg said. And then as we have so many times as parents, we sat in the silence together, enjoying it while we could. 

In those peaceful moments, a memory flashed into my head of a few years earlier when I was telling a good friend, and fellow mama, about a different particularly difficult play date we’d had. “I couldn’t wait for those girls to go home,” I said. “I don’t need to be parenting other people’s children.”

“Actually, I think you do,” my friend replied. “I mean, that’s part of our role as parents to be good role models for their friends too.”

She was right, and I’d carried her words with me over the years, but that didn’t mean I had any clue how to do this.

The next morning we found ladybugs on the windowsill and the girls put them in a jar with some leaves and flowers. Jasper immediately caught on and wanted to hold one. 

“No, you don’t get to,” Lily’s friend yelled at him like an army general. “You’d kill it. No touching!”

Jasper’s a bug whisperer, always has been. During summer I tip pots over in the garden so he can collect snails and beetles. He gathers them together and takes care of them with his tiny, gentle, fingers.

“He can hold one, girls,” I said.

“No he can’t!” she shouted at me. “He’ll kill it. He’s a boy and he’s too young and he doesn’t know how to take care of it.”

Uhm Excuse Me! “Hem, hem,” I felt like Dolores Umbrage in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, ready to ruin all the fun, but this child was attacking my boy, aside from the tiny fact of her yelling in my face. “Yes, he can,” I said a bit more forcefully. “Lily, take one of the ladybugs out so Jasper can hold it, please. And let’s stop the yelling,” I said. I had to hold myself back from snapping at this child who wasn’t even mine. 

In the whirlwind of breakfast the ladybug was soon forgotten and the girls went to play in the snow. It was mid-winter break and originally, this girl’s father had invited Lily to come spend the night back at their house on Sunday. Hmm, my girl on a double spend-the-night with Jack Nicholson from A Few Good Men? “You can’t handle the truth!!!!” 

Nope, not happening.

“Let’s keep Lily home tonight, then we can decide if we want to send her over there for a sleepover later this week,” I said to Greg.

“Sounds good.” 

In case you want to piss a couple of 8-year-old girls off, tell them they don’t get to have another sleepover right away. Woo wee!

This brought us back to the words, “Well you should try a lot harder to be her best friend!” ringing in my ears.

Think calm happy thoughts, think calm happy thoughts! “I’m not her best friend, honey. It’s more important for me to be a good parent. And we have rules in our house, so if you’d like to come back and play again,” maybe never “You need to follow our rules too while you’re here.”

“Okay,” she grumbled. 

This spend the night gave me a peek into what my future looked like as my kids grow and invite other kids over, wine, lots and lots of wine.

All joking aside, I want my kids to have friends. I want them to learn how to get along with all kinds of personalities and be able to communicate with them. I want them to learn both how to compromise, and how to stand up for themselves. 

And even though we’re learning on parallel paths, my children and I, it’s important for me to stay a few steps ahead, regardless of the tough subject matter, because in addition to loving and nurturing and feeding my children, one of my most important parenting roles is to try to equip them with the right tools to handle all the situations they will encounter. 

In a sense, this playdate woke me up to the fact that it is absolutely not too early to talk to my kids about certain things like drugs, cutting, death, sex or bullying, because, they are hearing about these issues from their peers, they are learning about sex, they may already have encountered bullying, and, it appears, even 3rd graders are chatting about cutting.

It truly is a village out there, people. One which sometimes feels more Lord of the Flies, than Little House on the Prairie. Half the time I feel out of my league in this parenting gig, but I do know this, I absolutely have to talk to my kids and make them feel comfortable talking to me about any topic, about their friends, their fears, their dreams. I absolutely have to hold their fragile emotions in my hands and help them learn how to deal with these emotions, and I have to simply be the parent, the safe place for them to come anytime, even if that means an extra kid or three under my roof at times.

If you’re like me and you need all the help you can get, here are just a few great resources to check out.

Resources:

  • kidshealth.org is full of information and they have a special section on cutting if you and your child are already facing that battle.
  • birdsandbeesandkids.com is an AMAZING website by Amy Lang, a sex education expert. 
  • The parenting section on A Mighty Girl, is AWESOME!!!
  • Short & Curly is a really fun and engaging ethics podcast for kids.
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Sara Ohlin

Puget Sound based writer, Sara Ohlin is a mom, wannabe photographer, obsessive reader, ridiculous foodie, and the author of the upcoming contemporary romance novels, Handling the Rancher and Salvaging Love. You can find her essays at Anderbo.com, Feminine Collective, Mothers Always Write, Her View from Home, and in anthologies such as Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak about Healthcare in America, and Take Care: Tales, Tips, & Love from Women Caregivers. Find her at www.saraohlin.com

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