At nearly 3 1/2, Emily Levey has begun to understand one of the key laws of human conversation: When you have something to say, it's sometimes better not to come right out and say it.
That, I suppose, is why she looked up from her lamb chop the other night at dinner and said:
"Dad, ask me how my day was."
So I looked up from my lamb chop and asked, "How was your day, Em?"
"Terrible!" she said. "The boys wouldn't let me play with them at school."
Nothing to be alarmed about. Kids are forever setting random rules, and other kids are forever getting upset when they're excluded. But just to be sociable, I asked:
"Why wouldn't they let you play with them, sweetheart?"
"Because I'm a girl," came the reply. And then came the tears.
Uh, oh. Jane and I exchanged anxious glances. This was a first. This was serious.
Parents always get the sense at moments like this that they'd better be real-l-l-l careful. If you don't say exactly the right thing, your kid could be scarred for life. Or your relationship with her could be. Or she might grow up to hate lamb chops. Or something horrendous.
So I went the Logic Route, as usual.
"What did being a girl have to do with it?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Emily. "They were mean to me. They wouldn't let me play with them."
"What were they playing, Em?"
"Superheroes," she said. In case you've had the good fortune never to encounter this game, it's played by Batman, Superman and several other fantasy characters. However, some Superheroes are female, a fact I was quick to point out to the aggrieved feminist sitting to my left.
"But the boys wouldn't let me play," she replied, grumpily. Nice try, Dad -- but Strike One.
Later that evening, I sat down next to Emily on the couch and asked if I could tell her a story. I began the way I always do.
"Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, your Dad was a little boy," I told her. "And he had lots of friends who were little boys, too. And we would run and jump and play baseball and do all sorts of things that little boys do."
"I can play baseball, too," said Emily.
"Of course you can, honey. But when I was a little boy, a lot of girls didn't do that. When I was a little boy, all the boys usually played baseball together on one side of the playground, and all the girls played something else on the other side. And the boys were so rowdy and crazy that we made up a disease. A sickness. We called it Girlalollaloo. We pretended that if a girl even touched us, we could catch this sickness. So whenever a girl would come near us, we'd scream, 'Ooooh, yuk! Girlalollaloo!' Then we'd run away as fast as we could."
"Did you ever catch Girlalollaloo, Daddy?" asked the wide-eyed person next to me.
"No, I didn't. I'm not the fastest runner in the world, Em, but I was always just fast enough to get away when a girl came near us. I'd shout, 'Look out, guys! Here comes Girlalollaloo!' And we thought it was the funniest thing."
"That would make me sad, Daddy."
"Of course it would, Em. And it made all the girls in my class sad. But here's what happened. Our teacher was named Miss Porter. She knew all about Girlalollaloo, of course. One day, we noticed her over in the corner of the playground. She was talking to all the girls. Finally, a girl named Nancy came over to my friend David. She asked David to shake her hand."
"You mean, like when I do, 'Nice to meet you?' "
"Yes, hon, exactly. So David looked around at us, and we said, 'Better not, David! You'll get Girlalollaloo!' And we all ran away, as usual. But David decided to do it. I don't know why. But he stuck out his hand, and Nancy shook it. And all of a sudden, all the girls and Miss Porter started laughing at all us boys. They laughed and laughed. They made fun of us. They said, 'See? He didn't get any sickness. He didn't get any Girlalollaloo.' And all the boys got embarrassed. We realized that we had been silly. From that day on, we never talked about Girlalollaloo again."
The next night, Emily was unusually silent during dinner. I asked her how school had been, and so did Jane, but she wouldn't answer. We feared the worst -- rampant sexism, rank discrimination, blatant harassment.
Later that evening, we were reading a book together in the den when Emily suddenly looked at me and said:
"Ask me how my day was, Dad."
"How was your day, Em?"
"It was great!" she said. "I told the boys that if they touched me they'd get a bad, bad sickness called Boyalollaloo."
Very soon, Emily and Dad are going to have a long discussion about an expression Dad learned when he was a little boy.
About how two wrongs don't make a right.