I took one of my daughters to a coffee shop. She’s eight years old. I order a coffee for myself and a cookie for her, and then she pipes up and says, “I’ll have a caramel Italian soda too.” That was not part of the plan, and it took me completely by surprise. She’s shy, but has an occasional flare up of fearlessness, usually when it involves her personal material gain. You can see that she has this furnace of desires tamped down, and sometimes oxygen rushes in and the fire flares up, and you can see the heat in her face.
She darts a glance at me, to gauge how I’m reacting to what she’s done. I smile at her. She’s done something brave, and the situation is slightly heightened by it, and if I say anything right in the moment, I could be backing her into a corner, and we might risk tears.
We sit at a table and talk about ghost stories. She’s into ghost stories at the moment, having realized she can hear a ghost story and sleep without nightmares. She makes a sudden gesture forward to emphasize a bony hand reaching out for someone’s neck in the dark, and spills her Italian soda. Horror shows on her face. She’d freighted the soda with meaning and that intensifies the loss. She snuck the soda in. It’s proof that she can control the universe and that her will here has an effect on matter. And now through a failure of will she’s lost a prize. It’s a little hard to watch this happen.
Recently, she lost a tooth, and requested in a letter that the tooth fairy let her keep the tooth so that she could play tricks on her friends, by removing the tooth suddenly, etc. But then she took to carrying the tooth all over the house and lost it. I could see that it wasn’t the loss of a tooth that bugged her. It was the loss of the potential enjoyment of tricking her friends, and being the kind of person who tricks her friends. She was destroyed. So I’m sensitive about this situation. But I’m also feeling a slight sensitivity about her getting whatever she wants. She pushed to get the soda, and now she’s lost it and it feels like maybe losing it is a good lesson too.
She’s almost in tears. “I want to get another,” she says. “I’m sorry,” I say. “You need to be more careful.”
She doesn’t cry, but she’s close. I smile at her, “Can you go get a rag, so we can clean this up?”
She won’t look at me, but then she nods. She goes to the counter. I look at my phone, and when she comes back she has a rag and another soda.
“How’d you get that?” I say.
“I told them what happened, and they gave me another one.”
I help her clean up the previous soda. I give her the rag, and send her back to the counter.
“Make sure to say thank you,” I say.
I watch her this time. She goes back to the counter. I can see her handing the rag back and talking to them. Thanking them, I assumed. Then the girl behind the counter moves to get retrieve something from the display case. She hands a cookie to my daughter. Lux walks back to me.
“They gave me a cookie!” she says. She can read a skepticism in my expression and is attempting to head it off.
“Why did they give you a cookie?” I say.
“Because they’re nice here,” she says, and she starts to eat the cookie.
“Did you just say ‘thank you’?”
“Well, I told them it was my birthday.”
I nod at this.
“But it’s not your birthday. Your birthday was months ago.”
“Not that long ago.”
“But that’s a lie.”
“If we came here on my birthday, they would give me a cookie. And we didn’t come here on my birthday, so they couldn’t give me a cookie. So they just gave me my birthday cookie today. It’s the same. It’s not a lie.”
“It is a lie.” I feel myself transforming into a parent who is about to teach my child something. I’ve been a parent for ten years, and I still become very aware of when I’m about to switch into important parenting moment mode. I hear myself talking in a way I don’t usually, and in a way that’s confusing. It’s like playing a song on the guitar and suddenly wondering if you actually know the chord that’s coming next, and then, because you made yourself think about whether or not you know the next chord, you completely forget the chord.
“Now I want you to go back to the counter and tell them that you lied.”
I dig some money out of my pocket.
“And go ahead and pay for the cookie.”
She doesn’t want to do this. She lowers her eyes and won’t meet mine.
“You need to go do this,” I say.
She turns and walks sullenly to the front.
I stand up to watch her. She walks to the counter. She stands there, gets the attention of the girl. Then, in a loud voice, she says, “My dad wanted me to tell you that he has a gun.” She looks back at me. We are almost out the door by the time the girl reacts at all.
“Uhhhhh . . .” the girl behind the counter says.
My daughter and I walk briskly down the street. We are both learning a number of things, and we are both teaching each other a number of things. She is learning that there is power in language. I am learning the limits of parenting.