Sally is growing her hair out, but she absolutely hates having it washed.
“Sally, if washing your hair is this hard, we can cut it shorter,” I suggested during a recent bath, as Sally was literally in tears over having her hair washed.
“But I want to marry Aiden,” Sally objected vehemently, “And he said at the library, ‘you better keep growing your hair out!'”
To be honest, I was completely taken aback by Sally’s comment. She’s five years old for goodness’ sake! I wasn’t prepared to have this conversation. I thought I had until middle school at least!
“Sally,” I told her, “What matters is how you want your hair. If Aiden really likes you, he will like you whether your hair is long or short.” We talked it out and in the end Sally said she wanted to keep growing her hair out for her, not simply for Aiden. And it is true that Sally made the decision to start growing her hair out before Aiden’s comment.
I recently read a novel in which a high school girl’s boyfriend started controlling her diet to make sure she wouldn’t gain weight. If she got French fries at lunch, he would take them and eat them, and so on. This was portrayed, correctly, as a warning sign, and the relationship went on to become physically abusive as well. There’s nothing wrong with changing your appearance out of a sincere desire to please your partner—say, getting a new haircut, or working out, or buying a new outfit—but there is everything wrong with a partner trying to control your appearances.
It’s funny how quickly small children start to play at romance. Before Aiden there was Daniel, and before Daniel there was Hudson. It has generally been simply a statement—“Mom, I’m going to marry Daniel when I grow up”—although last summer Sally and Aiden found an area in a park that they thought looked like an outdoor wedding spot and exchanged a quick peck as they acted out their own ceremony. When I was small, I generally played the preacher in this sort of arrangement—I must have married my sister off to the little boy my parents used to watch each Saturday at least a dozen times. Sally’s starting kindergarten at a new school in a month, so I’m sure there will be someone else after Aiden too.I suppose I want to promote good patterns and basic foundations for Sally now, while these relationships are still simply something children play at, rather than waiting for later when they become more all-consuming. But I also don’t want to make a huge deal out of things like this because I don’t want to make Sally think she’s in trouble. Weaving the basic ideas into day-to-day life and reinforcing them over time should be more effective than sitting Sally down once for some sort of Big Talk.
I’m beginning to feel that letting your child go and watching them make their own mistakes must be one of the hardest things about parenting. Oh sure, when Sally’s a teenager I’ll still have some level of control over her dating relationships and can put the brakes on if something goes badly off the rails. But once Sally graduates from high school and leaves home it will be her game entirely. I’ll be at the sidelines, able only to put in a word of encouragement or advice.
This understanding only highlights the importance of preparing Sally while I still have her—while she’s still eager to crawl into my lap or cuddle with me on the sofa. I shouldn’t be motivated by fear and I don’t need to freak Sally out by making everything into a Big Deal. It’s the little things, the little moments, the short heart-to-hearts and the little comments. It’s modeling a healthy relationship with Sean and teaching Sally relationships skills she can apply in a variety of settings. It’s about step by step, moment by moment, word by word, equipping Sally to play the game on her own when she gets there.