This morning, my four-year old daughter was picking out clothes to wear to the forest kindergarten she goes to. “I want to wear this green dress,” she said as she jumped down from her ‘walk-in’ closet, a hanger in hand. It was a sleeveless one-piece Ralph Lauren dress of a thin cotton fabric that’s perfect for a hot summer day. It is also one of the few pretty dresses she has that I try to save for occasions when we have to wear more presentable clothes.
“Honey, don’t you play with mud in the forest? You might get that dress dirty and Mama might not be able to scrub it clean. How about this other dress with sleeves? I don’t mind if you get this one dirty.”
“No, I don’t like that one. I want this green dress.”
“But the green dress is for summer. It’s still spring right now and can get a bit cool. This one with sleeves is warmer than the green dress.”
“No, I don’t like the pockets on that one. I want this green dress,” she insisted.
We went back and forth a couple more times until I finally gave up as I had to finish making their lunch boxes and said “Bahala ka.* You wear whatever you want.” (*Bahala ka means “Suit yourself,” often a Filipino mom’s way to get the last word in).
A few moments later, she walked into the kitchen wearing the dress with the sleeves looking like nothing happened. In a thoughtless moment, my brain automatically instructed me to say “Thank you Ruby.” But I caught myself right before I opened my mouth. I gave her a quick glance and looked away.
Why should I thank her? A ‘thank you’ at that moment would have just crushed her pride. It would not have meant the genuine sense of gratitude that the words are supposed to convey but rather it would have said: “I’m glad you came to your senses and you realized that I was right.” And I did not want to do that. I do not need an I-told-you-so moment.
Later in the car after we dropped off the kids, I asked my husband what he thought. “Good call on not saying ‘Thank you.’ That would have just hurt her.” Then he shared another occasion when he was called on for an inappropriate ‘Thank you.’
A couple of years ago, way before he became the head of the organization he started, he was packing rice with some other volunteers. When the work was done, he turned to a German woman who was also volunteering and said “Thank you.” She looked quite annoyed. “Why are you thanking me? I’m not doing this for you. I’m not doing you a favor. You and I are both volunteers here. You shouldn’t thank me.” And she was right, they were equals, doing something not for each other but because they were there on their own terms. My daughter also decided, on her own terms, to wear the dress with sleeves. I do not need to point out my position of authority and make the situation worse for my daughter while she is learning to grapple with her feelings of empowerment or lack of it.
This morning was a reminder to exert more mindfulness with my words, such powerful things that can help or harm, heal or hurt. ‘Thank you’ may not always the best thing to say.