When my daughter Isabel was four years old, she had an affinity for dressing stuffed animals as babies. She would care for them lovingly for a few days and carry them around everywhere she went. Eventually they would be replaced in her heart by a new critter with clothes.
One morning she was cradling her newest offspring: a small panda dressed in a purple coat and matching hat. I was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when she walked in empty-handed and distraught.
- “I can’t find Baby Johnson Isabel!” the panda’s full legal name.
- “Oh, honey – I replied- where did you last see it?”
- “I don’t know, mami”
I was about to dismiss her to look for it with a motherly bit about keeping track of her toys, when something in her voice made me turn around a look at her.
- “Mami, my baby is scared!”
- “Why, honey?”
- “Because she is loooooost!” at which point she started to sob.
We spent the next 30 minutes frantically looking for a scared, lost stuffed panda bear. Baby Johnson Isabel was found hiding inside an old cardboard box to the delight of her mommy, who covered her in kisses and admonished her for hiding.
I reflected later about my little girl’s despair at the thought of her poor, scared baby. In her tearful reaction I saw compassion and empathy – two traits I had hoped to help her develop. Above else, however, I saw my own fears mirrored in my daughter’s response. We had recently begun discussing what she should do were she to get lost at a public place. We were working on her full name and phone number and discussing safe people to approach. She was most concerned about how I would react.
- “What would you do if I got lost, mami?”
- “I would look for you night and day until I found out!”
- “Would you be sad?”
- “I would cry and cry until you were home again.”
This conversation would repeat itself over and over, until she was satisfied that I would never stop looking and that I would be heartbroken over her.
Isabel learns from me; she watches me, and copies me. She wants to wear lipstick because I wear lipstick, she sits and “works” next to me, when I’m working, and she cares for her babies the way she has seen me care for her little brother. The day we lost the panda I realized she will also respond to the world the way I respond to it. In her tears that day, I saw a four-year old version of my biggest fears. Maybe that is why I helped her look so hard and rejoiced with her when Baby Johnson Isabel was finally found.