Still basking in the glow of M’s third birthday and some really great days that we had recently spent together as a family, I was stopped in my tracks the other night while making dinner.
I was at the sink. M was standing behind me recapping her day to me when she blurted out, “I will kill you!”.
I. will. kill. you. She’s three.
The meaning of these words–spoken in a sing-song silly voice and with a smile on her face, but with a bravado that suggested the role of a superhero or a villain–were clearly not impressed upon her and it was obviously something that she had heard during the course of her day from somewhere other than at home. To be sure, I ran down in my mind all of the books in her collection (nope–no killing in there) and the TV shows she may have watched in the past few weeks (a few Blue’s Clues episodes during a couple of “napless but she clearly needs the rest” afternoons filled with errands, and a handful of Thomas the Train episodes as a special birthday treat–no fatal words there either). Maybe she had heard me or her dad utter the word “kill” in the context of gardening (I rue you, weeds!) or a pesky ground nest of bees we had to eliminate, but certainly not this specific phrase and not spoken like that. She had likely heard this from one of her pals while playing at preschool, who, in turn, must have heard it from somewhere else.
It wasn’t so much the actual words that she said that floored me. Instead, it was the reality check that, already, I do not have as much control over what she sees or hears in her daily life as I had thought. That her world is already not as innocent as I had hoped it would be for at least a few more years to come. My first instinct, quite honestly, was “That’s it! I’m quitting my job and yanking her out of preschool and she can stay home with me where we will plant flowers and bake bread all day!” But then I came to my senses and realized that imprisoning her inside a false bubble is not the solution here. I am not sure what is, but that just doesn’t seem quite right.
Knowing that it was probably used (and first heard by M) in the context of some dramatic play, based on words heard on a television show or in a book seen by one of her pals, gave me a little consolation. I know there are some good stories out there that involve good versus evil, and, in time, I hope to share those stories with M when it’s age-appropriate. But at any age, it’s the violence, particularly killing, that I have a problem with, even if it’s meant to be in good fun. I get that for kids, it’s about role playing and being powerful when so much of a young person’s life is not within their own control–eat your breakfast, get dressed, hurry up, time to put the toys away, etc. But balancing that aspect of it all with the never ending “why’s” uttered by this same little person…this is where I start to lose my footing and end up going down the rabbit hole.
Obviously, and thankfully, the grand majority of people around us are not actually killing other people despite probably having heard things like this over the course of their lifetimes and we (at least in the U.S.) live in a generally peaceable society. But one cannot deny that there are some gray areas that are hard to differentiate for children: murder seems to be generally socially unacceptable, but a lot of folks support the death penalty or wars. Why? And if it’s because of some judgement call…who’s to say that a simple majority or some dusty legislation is the proper or only source for making that decision? Granted, I can only share with M my own beliefs (at a later time) and let her come to her own conclusions, but when kids see things as only black and white for a while, it is much harder to explain nuances that only mature individuals can really understand, even if they do not necessarily agree with them. Personally, I believe that even in conflict of good versus evil, that killing is not the answer. There may not be any other better answers, but that is certainly never an answer for me. Wars (is it “conflict” these days?), death penalties, murder for revenge–you will be hard pressed to ever convince me that there is a legitimate reason to kill someone else, but I’m always game for a rational debate. Just not quite yet with a three year old.
When I spun around and told her that we don’t say things like that to people because it’s not nice, after saying it again to test me, she asked, “why?” Meaning, why is the word “kill” not nice. To M, she could have thought she was as easily saying “I will bop you on the head!” She honestly didn’t know what she was saying. This required an explanation of what killing is. Given the attention span of most three year olds, I probably could have broken out a bag of marshmallows and avoided the whole thing. Instead, I just calmly said (read: chickened out) “we don’t say those words to people because they hurt people’s feelings” and changed the subject. Not exactly my best parenting moment, but I didn’t know what else to do.
When you’re trying to raise a young person with certain values and you realize that you are no longer the source of certain kinds of information, it is a major reality check that you need to not work so hard to keep the bubble intact, but instead maintain the filters and the magnifying glasses for the information that will inevitably get past you. And all the while, stay true to your own feelings and beliefs, remain consistent, dole out age-appropriate information AND not get your back up about some stuff that other people say and do near your child…over the course of eighteen years, give or take. That is perhaps the most eye opening reality check of all.
Any words of wisdom out there?
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