There is a heat wave. England blazes temporarily, a shimmering heat-haze halo surrounds her crown;
The thermometer hits 30C (86F). The air is hot, thick and muggy. Sun kissed skin, shorts and flip flops abound.
We head out to our outdoor public swimming pool for some respite. We are joined by my daughter’s best friend and family.
The girls rip around the swimming pool together, laughing, splashing, exploring and making mischief. Other friends join us. It’s perfect. Just perfect.
It’s 5pm, the shadows lengthen, but the heat continues.
Thoughts turn to food. We decide to eke out the remnants of the glorious weekend in the sweltering courtyard of a nearby pizzeria. Six adults and six children under four. Magnificent chaos.
We are the only people here. The adults kick back and chance bottles of cold beer. The children pulse, faces red and glistening with sweat.
The sky turns a peachy hue. Honeysuckle and Jasmine curl around a trellis, radiating a heady and intoxicating scent. The courtyard bakes.
It is a perfect scene but fatigue sets in. Tempers start to fray. My daughters’ best friend is tired and becomes emotional. But my daughter wants to carry on playing.
After one rebuke, my daughter turns to her best friend and blurts out “Do you like me?”
I am surprised. I have never heard my daughter seek affirmation before. She may be 3 years old but I still have this mental image of her crawling around in nappies, squawking excitedly at house flies and chewing on our furniture.
And I can tell by the intonation in the question that she is feeling a little hurt. Something has happened between them.
If I’m shocked by the question, then the shot gun blast of a response knocks me off my feet.
“No. I DON’T like YOU”
It is delivered with an indignant turn of the back, the emphasis firmly on “YOU”
This passage of conversation stops everyone in their tracks. Someone on the table gasps.
A fly buzzes past. A car horn sounds.
The perfect day begins to crumble.
I immediately feel a whole series of emotions; anger, heart-break, sadness, shock
My daughter starts weeping, hard.
Not only has she asked a question that has laid her emotions totally bare, but she has done it in such an open and public way.
And she has received the ultimate social put down in return. Worse still, it is delivered in front of all the people she cares about most in the world.
“I DON’T like YOU”
My daughter sits on a step and sobs her eyes out, her back turned to the group. No parent likes to see their child cry, but I notice this is a different kind of crying.
My daughters face is contorting in ways I have never seen before; her face is the canvas for the expression of her soul – writhing, wounded, anguished and vulnerable.
Yes I expected this kind of thing during the teenage years, but not NOW at three years old. Surely not now? Not yet.
The parents of my daughter’s best friend, to their credit, try to reassure, try to get their daughter to apologise. They try to blame it on the heat, they try to resolve the situation.
It couldn’t have been easy for them to hear either, for our children are tiny little mirrors that reflect right back at us.
They try, but to no avail. The damage has been done.
I don’t know what to do or how to react.
Part of me wants to ignore it. It has happened, it’s going to happen again, and my daughter is going to need to learn to deal with it on her own.
And after all, maybe her best friend doesn’t like her and was just being honest.
It was brutal honesty, but at least it is honesty.
The other part of me wants to step up into man-mode and solve the problem; I want to give my daughter a big hug, carefully admonish her friend for saying something so cruel, gently but assertively elicit an apology and then, situation resolved, accompany everyone (smiling) back to the half eaten pizzas – the perfect day, still on the cards.
But while man-mode is ideal for fixing punctures or strimming hedges, it is not equipped for emotional trauma. The fragile gossamer threads of emotion cannot simply be fixed with some glue and a screwdriver.
This is going to happen again. She needs to work out how to deal with this herself. She needs to know that I am here for her, but that I can’t fix the way that her friends feel about her. And I certainly can’t fix the way that makes her feel.
But I can role model a reaction to social rejection. A reaction that will hopefully breed resilience. A reaction that will equip her for everything that is to come.
I went with what seemed instinctively right. A comforting arm. Whispered cajoling. A big hug. No judgments, no admonishment, just calm reassurance that I am there;
She did calm down. We eventually went back to our pizzas. The evening finished on a reasonable footing.
But I can’t shake this feeling that my daughter’s innocence has been dented by her best friend and I have done nothing to protect her.
And this little incident, played out very publicly in the theatre of the restaurant is both a window into the future and a comment on the present.
For the present it tells me my daughter is growing up, quicker than I realise.
For the present it has rammed home my limitations as a father.
For within my home I can protect and provide and nurture. And yet the moment I step out of the door, I am reminded of my parameters.
Society snarls and bares its teeth like a rabid wild animal and I have to turn away. I cannot protect my daughter, not even from tiny words that tumble from a tiny mouth.
And for the future it tells me there will be more of this to come. Social rejection, alienation, paranoia and shifting social bonds are unfortunately all pervasive features on the rich landscape of modern childhood.
And for the future it tells me that for every success and failure that my children endure, I will feel it as profoundly as they do.
And one thing is for sure.
My young daughter has probably been dealt the first of many, many blows to come, with that subtle, yet powerful, weapon;
A weapon called the word.
This post originally appeared on the Daddy Cool Project website. The Daddy Cool Project (DCP) is a London-based voluntary organisation which aims to help diminish negative stereotype of dads in the UK. It also highlights the importance and positive impact of fathers and male-role models living and working in today’s society. They do some really great work – go check them out at www.daddycoolproject.org.uk and follow on Twitter @daddycooluk