Mirror, Mirror

Young children come at the world without preconceived notions of "how things should be." They haven't bought into limited ideas of beauty or appropriate conversation. They don't censor their thoughts to fit in.
12/27/2011 11:31am ET | Updated February 26, 2012

"Mommy, you don't look happy."

Turning around to take a look at my four-year old in the backseat, I wondered what prompted him to tell me that.

I felt like I do most mornings -- a bit harried, not as rested as I might like, focused on making sure everyone is comfortable, fed and launched toward their various destinations. Although this routine often leaves me discombobulated, on most days I feel optimistic. After all, this is what I signed up for, and, routine ups-and-downs aside, I love my home life and that little kid in my backseat.

So, why did my son think I looked sad? Or, more accurately, not happy? I did a quick check in the rear-view mirror. Was it the bags under my eyes? As a woman closing in on forty (and by closing in, I speak of days, not years), I spend more time than I should looking at my reflection. My mirror helps me decide if it's time for another visit to the salon to cover those grays (it is), if I should get bangs to hide the wrinkles on my forehead (I could, but I won't), or if I put on too much blush in my haste to get out the door (Ringling Brothers audition perhaps?).

I rely on my bit of polished glass to identify and then camouflage any imperfections I find staring back at me. What I didn't expect before becoming a mother was that my little boy would be an entire mirror unto himself. He is at once a reflection of me and a reflection of his own (disarmingly sensitive) thoughts about me.

When I became a parent, my ability to judge myself (and everyone else) went into overdrive. I question the choices I make, the lessons I teach, the things I let slide. If life were like The Truman Show, I'd be watching re-runs to dissect my every decision. And, woe be to you if you are involved in my son's life in any meaningful way, because I'm probably judging you too.

My son, however, hasn't yet learned to be that critical. He has his (little) opinions and isn't shy about sharing them. Sometimes what he says can be a tad painful to hear, but it's never malicious. When he tells me I don't look happy, he's not judging me. He's observing. He's reflecting back whatever comes his way, in the way that only young children can. Even if it is surprising, or sometimes throws me off balance, I find this incredibly cool. I revel in it because it is utterly innocent, unadulterated, and one of the hallmarks of his curiosity about the world around him and about me.

I'd seen this honest observation in action before. When she was about five, my cousin told me I was beautiful. I was a twenty-something in the midst of a dating dry spell, so her compliment thrilled me. Clearly, this kid was a person of discerning tastes. A minute later, she pointed to a woman who looked to be in her late 70's with slightly blue hair and sagging skin that had seen a lifetime of pre-sunscreen Florida tanning -- and my cousin said, "She's beautiful too." Everyone, to my lovely cousin (a beauty in her own right), was beautiful.

Now in college, she's grown more like the rest of us and certainly doesn't see everyone around her as beautiful. But, that open, appreciative, and fleeting part of her childhood was magical. It's a magical part of my son, too.

Young children come at the world without preconceived notions of "how things should be." They haven't bought into limited ideas of beauty or appropriate conversation. They don't censor their thoughts to fit in. They call it like they see it and invite us along for the ride. This does, of course, also lead to candid conversations about poop, boogers, farts, and vomit, but that's the price of admission to a world unfettered by convention.

I wish I could remember what that feels like and right now, I desperately want to keep my son from ever forgetting -- even if that means I receive a daily and completely honest assessment of my mood.

As parents, we're supposed to help our children learn to be discerning about the world. Without a critical intellect, kids can't identify what is good or bad, or what is just or unjust. How can you be passionate about something if you don't have an opinion about its value? Who speaks up to tyrants or dictators if everyone just accepts the way things are? Our goal can't be to go through life without categorizing, rating or judging, right?

There's a difference, though, between being discerning and being judgmental, and between thinking critically and being critical. Being discerning means kids have the tools to make good choices. Being judgmental means you waste precious time in front a mirror cataloging gray hair.

So after years of living around mirrors, I've discovered that the most honest and revealing one is the four-year old boy sitting in the back seat of my car.

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