I hear the doorbell ring.
“Sara,” my dad calls. “There’s someone here to see you.”
This is a code. If one of my friends comes over, he usually sends them up to my room. There’s someone to see you means, there is a child on our doorstep. Specifically, my six-year-old neighbor, Ellie.*
I walk down the stairs. Ellie probably wants me to come out to play with her, or push her on the swings. But when I get to the door, she isn’t bouncing up and down on her heels, waiting to see me. She is burying her head and scuffing her shoes on the ground. I open the screen door and squat to her eye level.
“Hey Ellie. What’s up?” I ask.
She extends her hands to me. In one is (most of) my American Girl doll. In the other is a detached vinyl leg.
“Um, I was playing outside with your doll and, um, my cousin sort of sat on her and then her leg broke off.” She is afraid to meet my eye. “My dad says we will pay for the, re… re…” -she stumbles over a word I assume she has just learned today- “…repairs.”
I have been letting Ellie borrow my American Girl dolls for “sleepovers” this summer. Ellie’s family, like mine, is not from America, and her mother, like mine, does not want to spend $110 on a doll for her six-year-old – evidently a wise decision. We live on the same block, rented professor housing in a rich college suburb. American Girl dolls are a bit of a phenomenon here, and in most of the middle- and upper-middle-class U.S. When I was a kid, I was one of the only children I knew without one, and to me, they were a symbol of how I stood out from my peers- financially, culturally. I ended up buying a doll as an adult, earning my own salary, and now I let her borrow them so she can feel special and included with her own friends.
I look at Ellie, and I look at the doll, and I think about how to react.
People often think of teachable moments as responses to questions; questions like, “Why doesn’t Ruth celebrate Christmas?” or “Why don’t I get to see Mrs. Plotkin anymore?” What we often don’t realize is that, when you are around children, almost every moment is a teachable moment. Whether you like it or not, if you have any kind of a relationship with a child, you are a role model to them. If you make a joke at someone else’s expense in front of them, they learn something about what it means to be funny or kind. If they see you smoking or drinking – whether responsibly or to excess – they will make a judgment about something; either you, or that kind of behavior. If you say something about someone else’s body around them, you are indirectly influencing their understanding of themselves and their own bodies. That responsibility is significant, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
But while it’s a responsibility, it’s also a gift. Being around children, and remembering our positions as role models, reminds us to act with integrity and be better people. It’s a gift I learned to carry with me while working at a Quaker summer camp, where the SPICES – simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship – are words we use every day. We teach those values to kids so they understand what it means to be a good person and a part of a community. But the lessons we teach children go both ways. Kids, and the values we show them, influence us as much as we influence them.
I look at the doll and I look at Ellie.
“Thank you for telling me,” I say. I smile and take it from her hands. “I’m going to see if I can fix her myself, but if not, I’ll let you know, okay?”
“Okay,” she says.
“I also want to thank you for coming to tell me yourself. I’m sure you were a little bit scared to come here, right?”
“I thought that was very brave of you,” I say, “and I thought it was great that you were so honest. Thank you.”
As she walks away, I think about integrity. She doesn’t know what it means yet, but she will one day. If she remembers this moment, I hope she can look back on it and be proud of herself. I hope it will help her make the right decision the next time someone breaks something of hers, or she has to come clean about something. And if she doesn’t remember, I still hope it will subconsciously remind her that it’s okay to make mistakes, and what matters is what you do to fix them. After all, that’s what it did for me.