The Secret to Mothering My Daughter

Teaching self-acceptance means learning my seven-year-old’s language.

The Secret to Mothering My DaughterAva Scarlett squinted, and a wrinkle formed on the bridge of her nose. It wasn’t a fair question, of course, but I was curious. And on one blazing day last summer, torturing my young daughter with existential questions seemed like just the way to spend an afternoon. As her mother, I have a solid sense of her true nature, but you can always learn new things about your child through how she makes the tough calls, by the words she chooses.

“So,” I asked, “which would you rather have? All the Barbies or all the cake?”

My daughter is seven years old, and like many kids her age, she has a red-hot love of Barbies. I sometimes wish she didn’t love them so much. I sometimes worry about what Mattel’s plastic princess and her straight, blond hair and unrealistic measurements will do to my biracial daughter’s developing psyche. But then I remember myself at her age, when I played with them, too. I look nothing like Barbie, and neither does Ava Scarlett, but I like to think I emerged from childhood relatively unscathed.

My daughter is seven years old, and like many kids her age, she is fascinated with cakes of all kinds. But it’s not about eating them-or not solely. She wants to be the person baking amazing shapes and colours, the one crafting elaborate decorations made of icing and fondant. She watches YouTube video after YouTube video with an almost religious fervour, winding her brown curls around an index finger by the glow of the iPad. Unblinking, her eyes shine as she watches chocolate get whipped into glossy ganache.

Ava Scarlett turned, staring at me intently with her answer in mind. And it was good. “Why can’t we have both and share with everyone who wants?”

My daughter always splits her cookie in two so her brother can have some. She offers me her last bite of cucumber, even though it’s her favourite vegetable. She scatters drawings and love notes around the house for everyone who lives here, sliding them under bedroom doors or leaving them on side tables. She wants us to know how much she cares for us-each of us. And those layer cakes, those madeleines, those rainbow-coloured confections? Once they’re out of the oven of her imagination, she makes her way down the list of loved ones who will get to have her dream cakes and eat them, too.

Truth be told, we don’t bake a whole lot in our house, not nearly as much as we talk about baking. But given the opportunity, Ava Scarlett is satisfied by the task of stirring. Today, it’s dinner: she has declared herself in charge of beating the egg in which we’ll dredge the chicken breasts before covering them in bread crumbs.

Carefully, she carries her little white chair over to the fridge. The chair isn’t heavy, and she’s now big enough to lift it easily-no more dragging it across the floor, no more scratching the finish, no more scolding. She’s got this.

Peering into the wire basket of brown and white eggs we keep in the fridge, Ava Scarlett has a question of her own.

“Can I choose any egg I want?”

“Of course.”

She takes a long moment. “I think I’ll choose a brown one, because I love my mother.”

I blink-Ava Scarlett often doesn’t want to acknowledge that she is also brown. I remember wanting to be a standard-issue Barbie when I was seven, too, which is really just a way of saying, “I don’t want to feel different.” My own mother, in an effort to encourage empathy, was quick to ask me to “imagine what that must feel like,” when discussing the day’s news. But I just wanted to fit in.

I give my daughter a quick smile and ask her to climb up on her chair and crack the egg into the glass dish. She does her best, then reaches in to pick out pieces of the tan shell I know she selected to express her love for me and our family. In this moment, I choose to accept her comment as a generous one. Ava Scarlett’s driving desire is for people around her to be as happy as possible. She wants things to be smooth. These days, though she’d rather be a Barbie than a brown egg, she’d never want me to feel abandoned by her. This little apple hasn’t fallen very far from my tree. It’s amazing what your children mirror back.

I hand Ava Scarlett a fork. “Did you know that eggs come in all kinds of colours? Different shades of white, different shades of brown, speckles. I’ve even seen pale-green ones. They’re all exactly the same on the inside, though. Just like people.”

“I know.”

“Okay,” I reply.

Ava Scarlett stops talking, grips the fork and focuses on beating the egg into a yellow froth. I can almost hear the gears in her head turning my words over and around. Of course, eggs are the same on the inside, just like people, she’s thinking. I know she understands this, but I will remind her as often as I can, as often as required.

Why can’t we have both and share with everyone who wants?

Like my mother before me, I want my child to try putting herself in others’ shoes. Empathy is a trait worth nourishing. To consider others-from how they feel to what they might want or need-is the kinder way to move about the world.

Ava Scarlett is generous and considerate, and I hope she’ll continue to be. I also want to make sure the act of giving isn’t wrapped up in a desire to be liked or to curry favour. My job is to reassure my Barbie- and cake-happy daughter that she’s enough, just the way she is, both brown egg and white.