This afternoon at the neighborhood library Zoe was in the children’s reading area while I looked for books for her on nearby shelves. There was another little girl in the kids’ section and I heard her talking to Zoe. A few minutes later Zoe walked over to where I was and said, calmly, “that girl is being mean to me. She said I was ugly and I wasn’t pretty. She said she didn’t care about me and she took the books out of my hand, that I had first, and she said I was jealous of her dvds and I don’t even know what she was talking about.”

Where do you start?

I walked back over to the children’s area with Zoe. The girl started to say something else to Zoe and saw me and immediately stopped and sat down with her dvds. I thought about saying something to the girl, like “why were you being mean to my daughter? That wasn’t nice!” but decided against it. I didn’t think it would go over well and I didn’t really want to get into it with the girl. I worried that I was going to teach Zoe to be a wuss. But I didn’t really know what to say. I knew Zoe was telling the truth, but since I didn’t witness the exchange, and I didn’t know anything about the girl, I just felt like it wouldn’t be productive.

Instead, Zoe brought me over some books and curled up in my lap and we read together. I helped her sound out words. I sounded out some on my own. Zoe did a puzzle. We picked out some books for her, checked out, and left.

Although she’d been quiet for a while, I could tell Zoe was shaken by the experience. I told her I was really sorry that had happened and I asked her what she had said when the girl was talking to her. She said that when the girl said “you’re ugly,” Zoe said, “No.” And when the girl continued, “you’re not pretty,” Zoe said, “No.” Zoe explained that she wasn’t at all jealous of the girl’s movies, which the girl had bragged were scary movies, because, Zoe said “I don’t even like scary movies. I didn’t want her dvds.”

We talked about what she might say to someone who was talking to her like that in the future. We took turns coming up with responses, like “I don’t like the way you’re talking to me,” (mine), and,”I’m not going to pay attention to you,” (Zoe’s). I told Zoe that it wasn’t acceptable for anyone to treat her like that, and she didn’t ever need to take it, and that she should say so, and if the person persisted, just ignore the antagonist or walk away. Zoe said, “I’ve never met a mean stranger like that before.” I felt my heart breaking a little, knowing all the mean strangers she will encounter throughout the rest of her life. She didn’t understand why the girl would talk to her like that. I explained that often, when someone is mean to a stranger, it’s because someone has treated that person badly and they think it’s ok to treat someone else badly. Zoe said, “I guess she never learned her manners.”

Zoe said she was disappointed and sad that the girl had treated her that way. She reiterated that she had had no interest in the girl’s movies. “I’m not even brave enough to watch scary movies yet.” For some reason, I continued in the vein of coming up with alternate responses to the situation. “You could say to her, I don’t want your dvds. I have my own dvds at home.”

“Yeah,” Zoe agreed. “Or I could say, ‘I don’t want your dvds. I have Netflix!'”