From Chicken Soup for the Mother of Preschooler's Soul

Food for Thought

Parents learn a lot from their children about coping with life.

Muriel Spark

When you’re the mother of a small boy, even mundane activities like grocery shopping can take unexpected turns—as I learned one Sunday afternoon.

Griffin and I browsed the bread aislewhen a grandmotherly-looking woman paused near us. “Are you helping Mommy with the shopping?” she asked.

My son ducked behind me with the classic shyness of a four-year-old. The woman and I exchanged smiles.

As she moved down the aisle, Griffin peered around me to say in a loud voice, “She’s really old, isn’t she?”

“Shh!” I winced.

When the woman turned back to look at us, I apologized. She merely laughed. “That’s okay. He’s right.”

When she left, I turned to Griffin. “Honey, it’s not nice to say somebody’s old.”

“Why not? It’s true.”

I’d taught Griffin the importance of telling the truth rather than fabricating stories to get out of trouble. Now I had to explain the subtle distinction between honesty and courtesy. “Just because something’s true doesn’t mean it’s nice. People don’t always like being reminded that they’re getting older. It can hurt their feelings.”


“It’s just not a good idea to talk about how old people are. If you have something to say about howa person looks, please don’t say it where they can hear you. Save it to tell me later.”

The next Saturday, my boss, Paul, phoned and asked me to take care of a small emergency project. My husband was away for the day, and I had no one to watch Griffin.

“Bring him with you,” Paul said. “The job will take only an hour. I’ll entertain him.”

When we arrived, Paul had markers and paper for Griffin. From my cubicle, I could hear them chatting about Griffin’s drawings.

Then my candid son asked, “What happened to your hair?”

Dead silence followed.

Paul, a handsome man of forty, was prematurely balding. “It just kind of fell out,” he finally answered.

“You should buy some new hair,” Griffin suggested.

I cringed. The kindest thing I could do was pretend I hadn’t heard. I finished my work, and we left.

“Paul can’t help that his hair’s falling out,” I told Griffin on the way home. “Remember me saying it’s not nice to talk about how people look? We need to try not to hurt people’s feelings.”

“Okay, Mommy,” Griffin said.

But I knew he was merely expressing his observations. How could he possibly understand that baldness, like age, might be a sensitive subject?

The following Saturday, we pulled into a fast-food drive-through. A teenage girl in the pick-up window handed me a milkshake.

“I ordered chocolate, not strawberry.” I handed it back.

She returned with another milkshake and a bag containing a cherry pie and french fries.

“I ordered a burger and a child’s meal,” I pointed out.

Griffin’s voice rang, loud and clear, from the backseat. “Boy, she isn’t very good at her job, is she?”

“Griffin, shhh!” I wished I could disappear.

The girl handed me another bag without a word.

“I’m sorry,” I said. She didn’t answer, so I drove away.

“Honey, you shouldn’t have said that. You hurt that girl’s feelings. I know it seems like she isn’t very good at her job, but everybody makes mistakes. Maybe she’s having a tough day.”

“I’m sorry, Mommy,” Griffin said.

I sighed. “It’s okay. Just try not to do it again.”

The next day was Sunday, grocery-shopping day. Thinking of Griffin’s recent social blunders, I suggested he stay home with his dad.

He burst into tears. “I promise I’ll be good!”

I knew I couldn’t leave the child at home forever, fearing he’d say something hurtful or embarrassing. “Okay,” I sighed, “but don’t say anything about how people look or how they do their job!”

At the grocery deli, we took a number and waited our turn among the line of customers. A store employee pushed a cart containing samples of yellow cake. “Would you like to try some pound cake?” she asked. “I can give you a dollar-off coupon.”

“No, thank you,” I said.

“No, thank you,” Griffin echoed.

I held my breath as the woman moved away to offer cake to other customers, all of whom also declined. She was white-haired and stooped, but—to my relief—Griffin didn’t mention her age.

After we made our deli selections, we headed to frozen foods.

“Mommy, remember that lady with the cake?”

“Yes.” I dropped a bag of frozen broccoli in our cart. Now he’d probably tell me she was really old. At least he’d waited until she was out of earshot.

“Nobody wanted her cake,” he said.

“Maybe they don’t like pound cake.”

“But how do you think that made her feel?”

I caught my breath. “I don’t know. How do you think it made her feel?”


I hadn’t given a thought to the woman’s feelings. The store surely paid her wages whether or not anyone tried the cake. Still, I imagined how she might feel, offering samples to people more interested in watching for their deli number than sampling her cake. Some customers hadn’t even glanced at her when they declined.

But the real point was that my four-year-old son had not only absorbed all my lectures on others’ feelings, but had taken the lessons to a level I hadn’t even considered.

I hugged him. “You’re so nice, Griffin. Should we go tell her we’d like to try some cake?”

He nodded, and I grabbed a pound cake from the freezer. We would ask the woman for a coupon, too. Humbled, I followed my son—who might have a four-year-old’s brutal honesty, but could teach his mother about compassion.

Lisa Wood Curry

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