The other day, The Dormouse came home from piano class singing this song that they'd learned:

One little, two little, three little Indians.
Four little, five little, six little Indians.
Seven little, eight little, nine little Indians.
Ten little Indian boys.

I winced.

I learned that song when I was a kid too but as an adult living in a series of several very diverse communities, I never before thought of it as something that might be unacceptable until hearing it now, coming out of my daughter's mouth. What would my Native American friends from my freshman year in college say? Would this offend them? To be honest, I don't really know.

Some things that I grew up hearing and never thought of as offensive to others are now no longer things that can be said in politically correct company. For example, when I was in first grade, I distinctly remember my teacher telling us kids to "sit Indian style" on the floor every day for story time. Granted that was a long (LONG) time ago, but it was also in Colorado - a community where there was a large population of Native Americans. Maybe it was just because I was young, but no one seemed to have thought that that phrase might be even the slightest bit offensive to Native Americans. Now I'm wondering if teachers just assumed that it wasn't or if they just never cared to ask.

When I was in my last year of college, in one of my special education courses (at a different school, in a different community with a large population of Native Americans), the Professor asked a student to demonstrate an activity for children to the rest of the class. He stood up and said, as if he were speaking to grade school kids, "OK, everyone come sit Indian style in a circle." The Professor stopped the activity and explained to him that this phrase was no longer acceptable; that he should instead use the phrase "sit cross legged" and we should all think about the things we are used to saying and how they might affect the children and families of the children with whom we interact. She was absolutely right, by the way. We can all use a little lesson in tolerance, no matter where we are in life.

I decided to let the song thing go for the time being. After all, it was just a stupid counting song.

But then the next day when The Dormouse came home singing this verse to the same song, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

*patting hand over mouth in mock simulation of a stereotypical Indian war call from 1950s B movies*

Woo woo woo woo woo. Shoot that arrow.
Woo woo woo woo woo. Shoot that arrow.

Woo woo woo woo woo. Shoot that arrow.

Ten little Indian boys and girls.

Now, I
know my friends from college wouldn't appreciate that.

Me, *trying hard to not get all nutso about this*: "Um... honey? Did your piano teacher teach you that verse?"

"No. Momma. My teacher at school. Miss Sally taught me that one."

Miss Sally... who is Indian, as in, from India. (Mmmmmmkay.)

"Well, honey, maybe we shouldn't sing that song that way."

"Why Momma?"

How do you explain THAT to a four year old?

If there's one thing we've tried to teach The Dormouse and intend to teach The Caterpillar, it's acceptance. Not tolerance - but acceptance: of people regardless of their race, disability, gender, religion, sexual preference, hair color, eye color, economic status, body type or the color car they drive. And because I feel that so often with The Dormouse, saying 'you shouldn't say that because it might be offensive' actually causes her to focus on differences and perpetuates feelings of superiority or inferiority (neither of which I want her to have), we've put more of our efforts into being an example of that principle rather than just telling her we're all equal and then not acting like it. We're not perfect; we all say and do stupid things without realizing how they might sound to others sometimes. Case in point. But acceptance, more than anything, is something I want my children to learn from me because they probably won't learn it out in the world. That and kindness. I'm working on that.

So imagine what a parental failure I felt like last month when I was interviewing her for this post and my daughter, who loves everyone and talks to everyone and plays with everyone and sees skin color less than anyone I know, had the following exchange with me. One that I conveniently left off my Valentines' Day post because it would have killed the funny.

Me: "What kinds of qualities do you think someone you might marry one day should have?" (Thinking I'd get 'nice to me,' 'likes ice cream,' 'sleeps in Princess underwear,' that kind of stuff.)

Dormouse: "Someone with light skin."

Me: "....."

Me: "Ummm... what?"

Dormouse: "Someone with light skin color."

Me: *trying not to swallow my tongue* "Honey, why do you say that?"

Dormouse: "Well he has to have the same skin color as I do."

Me: "Why?"

Dormouse: "Because otherwise it would be... well... um..... too confusing."


The fun, humorous Valentines' Day interview ended there as I grew serious. " Honey, who told you that? Did you learn that from me and Daddy?"


"A teacher?"


"Then who says you have to have the same skin color as someone in order to marry them?"

"My friends at school."

Great parenting acumen #764: No matter what lovely values you try to teach your kid, somebody else is going to !*%& it all up.

We stopped there and had a long (probably too long for a four year old) discussion about how Mommy and Daddy would be happy with whomever she decided to marry as long as he was good to her and how the color of our skin didn't matter for whom we choose to be our friends, neighbors or relations. There were images of different color flowers in a garden all with green stems compared to people and reminders that when we cut ourselves we all bleed red blood and probably a few more metaphors thrown in that served to confuse her further and make her fear hospitals for the rest of her life. I admit, I was not prepared. I just never imagined I'd have to have that discussion with a four year old.

I don't know if I said all the right things. I don't know if it helped. I do know when I asked her yesterday to point out the boy in her class that she recently told me she wanted to marry, I noticed that he was of Latin origin... but that he is one of the lighter skinned kids in her class. I know that for a family that uses as much sarcasm and self-deprecating humor as we do, we need to be a LOT more careful about what we say and do in front of her, because damn if it doesn't all get internalized.

I also know that if you want to know what your kids are thinking and feeling, you should talk to them more. Try an interview. It's really enlightening.