This summer, my then 8-year-old daughter, Emerson, experienced two important rites of passage.
First, she became the object of a young man’s affection. This boy, whom we’ll call DG, had it bad for my moppet. So bad, in fact, that he asked if she had email, and told her that if she did NOT have email he’d make an email for her, so they could write during the evenings and over the weekend, when he was bereft of her company.
She told me this matter-of-factly one hot July night after camp, as she shoveled mac-n-cheese into her summer pink face. My baby, who has my pointy chin and round cheeks, her Daddy’s beautiful mouth, and more hair than anyone has a right to. My sweet little girl, who loves dragons and making things out of clay. My precious child, who is the kindest, funniest, and most generous person I have ever known.
“Well, Mama. Do I?” she asked.
“Do you what?”
“Do I have email?”
“Yes, my darling, you do. You have email so you can write to Grandma and Grandpa in Florida, and Grandma in Connecticut, and Yaya.” (That’s her nickname for my best friend, Lisa.)
“Well write it down for me, so I can give it to DG and he can send me an email.”
I didn’t just hand over her email address, of course. First I confirmed that this person was actually another child and not a 40-year-old ice cream vendor who hands out balloons to his “special” customers, but you have to climb into the back of the truck — which is really just a white van that he painted to look like an ice cream truck — to get your balloon (I watched far too many After School Specials growing up). Cue the epic eye rolling as she assured me that YES MAMA he’s a KID! He’s 10! We then had a giggly conversation where she admitted DG had a crush on her, and while she didn’t have a crush on HIM, she liked the fact that he had a crush on HER quite a lot.
I told her that she’s under no obligation to like him just because he likes her, that she doesn’t have to give anyone her email or phone number or smile for them or tell them her name or respond AT ALL just because a boy likes her. But if she IS going to be friends with him, she should understand that he has more-than-friend feelings for her, and be kind to him. And that if he, or anyone else for that matter, ever makes her feel uncomfortable or hurts her feelings or pressures her to be more than friends when she just wants to be friends then she should immediately tell me or her Daddy, and we will kill him. With our bare hands. And make it hurt. Bad.
Maybe I didn’t say that last part.
At the time Emerson didn’t have her own device on which to receive email. No iPad or iPhone or computer to call her own, because she is the most deprived child in all the land of Brooklyn. Her email came through on my iPhone, however, and so I was privy to the besotted musings of this 10-year-old Romeo. Here’s how it worked: He would send a message. I would see it on my phone, but not open it. I’d go home after work and tell her she had email. She’d take my phone and read the message, giggle, and then hand the phone back to me so I could type her dictated response, because I am her secretary. Sometimes she’d get bored and wander away, and I’d go scrambling after her because it is one thing to be transcribing a message from an 8-year-old girl to a 10-year-old boy, and quite another to be texting said 10-year-old boy by myself.
Things got serious when he started in with the emojis.
This went on for quite a few weeks. He even emailed her while we were away on vacation, counting down the days until she returned to camp, pumping out a string of emojis we had to consult a glossary to decipher. And then, sure as winter follows fall, came rite of passage number two: He dumped her. She went to camp one day, and he casually informed her that they were breaking up, but could still stay friends. She shrugged it off — she really hadn’t liked him that way, and was content with his ongoing friendship — but I admit to feeling a little miffed. I’d gotten pretty invested in all those emojis after all.
In August, for her 9th birthday, we got Emerson an iPad. She was so happy she cried. Mostly this iPad has been used for watching Wild Kratts (#TeamChris forever), taking photos of herself using Photo Booth, emailing grandparents, and FaceTiming Yaya.
And about a week ago, she used it to FaceTime DG.
I do not know what her motivation was. I think she was just missing her friend. He gleefully shouted her name when he realized it was her, and they talked for a long time, about school and games they were playing online, about his parents’ divorce and his brother and sister, about her fish. I didn’t eavesdrop – she did it in front of me, sitting on the couch. It was sweet, and tender. He told her he cared about her, and missed her, and was so happy to see her face.
He is a lover, this DG. His vulnerability slays me.
This is just the beginning, of course. The beginning of the boys and men (and perhaps women, who knows?) who will love her, whom she will love. And I want it all for her, all the ecstatic wonders and heart-cracking pain that is loving another person. The lavender-scented joy and the eating a tub of frosting in the bathtub while crying. I wish her everything, all of it, every electric moment of love and passion, eventually, when the time comes.
But first, this girl and I had some business to take care of.
I found her curled up on her bed, reading one of the BONE books. “Hey Emmy,” I said. “Can we have a conversation?” She put her book to one side and turned her open, sweet face to me.
“Sure. Am I in trouble?”
“Of course not. Why would you think you’re in trouble?”
“Well, what do you want to have a conversation about?”
“I want to have a conversation about FaceTime.”
I nude modeled in college, for sketch classes, and painting classes. I loved it. During breaks I would slip into a white robe, light a cigarette, and wander through the rows of easels, looking at the canvases and seeing myself the way others saw me. It completely changed the way I thought and felt about my body, made me appreciate the curved landscape of my belly and hips, my neck and breasts, the wild tumble of my unruly hair. I had a lover who photographed me nude, and I trusted him with my life. When we broke up, he gave me the photos, and the negatives.
I didn’t tell my daughter any of that. I will, someday, when my 20-year-old innocence and wildness can serve as a fond anecdote, rather than a model for her own behavior. Instead, I told her that sometimes when people have phones or other devices with cameras they can get a little silly and take pictures of their bodies, like their tushies, and then send them to other people. She laughed at that, thought it was ridiculous. And it is, I told her, it is very silly, but it is also sort of serious, because the Internet is an endless place, where nothing ever truly goes away. And even if you just send a photo like that as a joke, to someone you trust, once it leaves your Photos it might go anywhere. So we struck a deal. She will never take a photo, or video, or FaceTime of any part of herself below the neck. In a nervous spurt of creativity, I even made up a cheerful rhyme, to help her remember:
If it is not of your face, do not send it anyplace.
I also told her that if anyone sends her a photo of anything but their face she’s to show me or her Daddy immediately, and we’ll help her take the right next steps. If they show her any non-face parts on FaceTime, she’s to shut it down and come tell us.
I’m almost completely certain this was the right thing to do. She’s young, she’s so exquisitely young, but if you’re old enough to have your own iPad, know how to shoot photos and use FaceTime, and have a romantic boy to FaceTime with, then I think you’re old enough for this conversation. I think this conversation is required.
The world is so wide and full, so delicious and riotous. And I want her to have all of it. But for now, only from the neck up.