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For Zoe, with Love

There is something about my seven-year-old daughter, Zoe, that makes people want to buy her stuff.  Is she cute?  Sure.  Is she funny?  Absolutely.  Is she wise beyond her years?  Sometimes.  But why is it that babysitters and other ‘big girls’ feel the need to shower her with gifts?

It’s simple, really: because she asks them to.

Let’s go back a few years, to when a teenager named Leah came to babysit Zoe for a second time.  The first time had been a success, and so we planned another evening.  “When is Leah coming?”  Zoe asked for a week leading up to the eventful Saturday night.

“In a few days,” I said, showing her on the calendar.

“Ohmigod, I can’t wait!”  She said, jumping up and down.  I thought, wow, that Leah seems pretty regular to me, but she must be incredibly awesome for Zoe to carry on like this.  I thought I had scored bigtime in the babysitter department.  I pictured carefree weekend evenings with my husband that stretched into infinity, all thanks to Leah The Amazing.

Saturday night arrived.  Zoe was watching the clock, counting the minutes until this miraculous babysitter showed.  Then Leah walked into the house with a giant plastic bag from Target.  She was clearly trying to hide it from me as she and Zoe whispered back and forth.

It was like trying to hide an elephant with a red target on its body from an ivory poacher.  I saw it clear as day.  But I pretended not to.

I merely waved hello and watched with interest as Zoe led Leah and the mystery package into the basement.

I gave them a few minutes of alone time.

“So what’s in the bag?” I asked, from my sort of secret spot on the stairs.  Both girls jumped and turned in my direction.

“It’s nothing!”  Zoe said, just as Leah said, “A doll.”

I fetched my husband, Brett, for backup. We separated the two girls into different corners of the basement for a little ‘good cop-bad cop’ interrogation while our son, Andrew, watched TV and pretended to mind his own business.

Although it seemed at first like Leah had just spontaneously spent $15 of her own money on a walking/talking/singing/spitting/pooping doll for Zoe “just because,” it quickly became apparent that Zoe had requested that exact gift.  Further, a deal had been made that Leah would buy it and bring it the next time she came to babysit, because that would make Zoe soooo happy.

Let me just say for the record that my daughter is in no way doll-deprived.  She doesn’t have to make dolls from socks unless she wants to, because there are plenty of real ones floating around the house, from a few Madame Alexanders to the American Girl variety to the Barbies.

So, a long discussion ensued.  The doll would be returned to Target.  Brett and I would be late for the movie, and, after that night, Leah would not be invited back.  Although she was lovely, as a freshman in high school, Leah just wasn’t ready for the challenges presented by our daughter.  How could we rely upon a babysitter that got pushed around by a five-year-old?  There is a slippery slope from “please get me this doll,” to “Let’s roast marshmallows over the open stovetop; my mom lets me do it all the time.”  No, we needed someone tougher.  Or, at the very least, someone in tenth grade.

Since then, Zoe has continued to wheel and deal.  There was the babysitter that promised to bake her brownies and showed up at our door with an overstuffed Tupperware container. (I didn’t mind that one, for obvious reasons.  Yum.) Then there are the throngs of teens she picks up at the Scarsdale pool in the summertime by telling them they are so pretty and she loves their bikinis.  The next thing you know, the girls are playing with her in the pool, making her bracelets and showering her with tattoos and stickers.  Again, these small gestures don’t worry me.  They are, in fact, kind of sweet.

Zoe has been known to charm her way into the lives of many, both young and old.  That’s fine; the child is charming.  She is outgoing and witty and approaches most social scenarios wanting to make a connection.  But I thought we were good now, I thought we were in the clear regarding anything close to the Leah Situation.

Until the other day, when Zoe came home from school with a new stuffed animal.

“It’s from my buddy!”  Zoe explained when I picked her up after cooking club.  “And I tried pesto and it’s good,” she added.

“Thumbs up to the pesto, Zo!”  I said.  “But I’m not so sure about this horse,” I added, looking in the gift bag.  It was one of those white stuffed animals that comes with markers so you can decorate it.  It was very thoughtful.  And very unnecessary.  And possibly illegal in the unwritten code defining the relationship between second and fourth grade buddies.

“It was so nice of Jackie to get it for me,” Zoe said.  But my moral compass was not as certain.  Did Jackie just get it for Zoe….or did Zoe request it?  And, how to explain to her the difference?

I waited a few hours and then approached the topic after homework time.

“Did Jackie really just give that too you, Zoe?”  I asked.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said, smirking slightly.

“You didn’t maybe ask for it?”

“Uh-uh,” she said, one corner of her mouth angled slightly upwards.

“Because, you know, I can find out the truth.  I have ways.”

This was met with silence.  No more grinning.

I continued.  “Maybe I know this girl’s mommy.  Or maybe Jackie will be in the school play, and I’ll be chaperoning and I’ll say, hey, Jackie, did Zoe really ask you for that horse or what?”

“No, you wouldn’t.”  Zoe said.

“Listen to me, my friend,” I said, turning away from the dirty dishes in the sink to give her a long, steady look.  “I will always find out.  That is my job.  So, you can tell me the truth right now, and we can fix it, or you can wait and then I’ll find out if you lied to me and then I’ll be really upset.”  I emphasized my future anger with a shake of the large yellow rubber gloves covering my hands.

“Okay,” Zoe said.  “I asked her to get it for me.”

Secretly, I thought, Victory is mine!  But also, Don’t be so proud of yourself when you have created a child who could end up conning people in Vegas.  So what I said was, “Zoe! How could you do that?”

“Well, I lost that other unicorn and I was so upset and I wanted a new one!”

“And you thought you’d just ask another child to get one for you?  It’s not even your birthday!”

“I know!”  Zoe agreed.  “She wanted to get it for my birthday, but I told her this couldn’t wait until July!”

The kid’s got chutzpah; that much is for sure.

I hid a smile.  In a weird way, even though I know that what she did was wrong, I kind of admire her spark.  I hope she never loses it.

In the end, I had Zoe write Jackie a thank you note, but also made her return the horse.  I alerted Jackie’s mother and Zoe’s teacher about the gifting incident and spoke at length to Zoe about the nature of true friendship, which doesn’t require dolls or brownies or horses to keep it vibrant, even on one’s birthday.

Let’s see how long she remembers that lesson this time.

My rubber gloves and I are always ready to re-teach it.

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