“Mommy who is ISIS?” my 5-year-old daughter asks on the way to school. Thrilled that she’s been exposed to ancient Egyptian culture, I launch into an explanation of how the goddess Isis was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife a “long, long time ago.” I’m stoked about this new direction in her interests.
My daughter shakes her head. “No, this ISIS did something bad. Something with a sword.”
Oh! That ISIS. As in the Islamic State of Iraq.
“Where did you hear about ISIS?”
“The neighbors were talking about it.”
Honestly, I’m not that surprised. This is the same child who asked me about circumcision when she overheard some mothers talking about it and about hot flashes after listening to one of my phone conversations.
She’s an eavesdropper. And she’s good at it. Really good.
She has a sixth sense about when grown-ups are having adult conversations about mature topics. She’s perfected the art of sidling over and hovering quietly so as not to interrupt the flow of conversation. The problem is that the conversation topics she’s exposed to are sometimes over her head and beyond her emotional capacity. That’s how I end up explaining chemical peels, menopause, miscarriages, and drone strikes to my daughter years before I would have expected.
Oh, and how could I forget the time she overheard a conversation about “bias in mainstream media.” Let me tell you, that’s hard to explain to someone whose grasp of media is limited to the PBS Kids app on the iPad.
I love that she’s curious and wants to know what the big people are discussing. Her habit of listening in has occasioned some of our most powerful conversations about religion, politics, and current events. One particularly good exchange we had arose when she asked me to explain why people are “disappointed in President Obama.” We talked about promises and expectations, then I briefly touched on the three branches of government. I can’t imagine how else we would have discussed that if she hadn’t overheard a political discussion on the sidelines of her brother’s soccer game.
When I need to have adult-only conversations, I’ve learned to have them way out of her earshot—preferably when she’s not around. I shut my door when I’m on the phone and wait until she’s asleep to conduct private conversations I don’t want her to hear.
But it’s not just my conversations she eavesdrops on. Our nanny reported that my daughter was hanging around the adults at the park, zoning in on a conversation. The subject? The Germanwings pilot who crashed the plane into the French Alps. Thankfully, our nanny, hoping to spare my daughter unnecessary angst, redirected her to the swings before she could suss out the details of the tragedy.
Part of me wants to ban her from listening to conversations with anyone over four feet tall, but I recognize there are some advantages to her exposure to mature topics. Harvard University developmental psychologist Paul Harris’s book Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn From Others, discusses ways in which young children learn by overhearing conversations that inform them how their community views the world. He confirms what my daughter has taught me: kids learn a great deal about the world from eavesdropping. There’s a strong argument for letting her hang around because it enlarges her knowledge base and stretches her imagination.
But it’s one thing for her to hear adults wrestling with disappointment in political leadership; it’s another for her to pick up graphic details about police brutality or terrorism.
Here again is another area of parenting where I don’t know how to navigate the fine line between exposure and protection.
For now, I’ll brace myself for her questions and hope that I can fashion age appropriate answers on the fly. If not, I’ll have to fall back on something my mother used to say to me: “We can talk about it when you’re older.”
Christie Tate is a lawyer and writer who lives in Chicago with her husband and two children. She blogs about herself and, well, mostly just herself, at Outlawmama.com.
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