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Reality Curbs Idealism for Preteen Daughter

02/23/2012 12:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2012

My daughter has all of the makings of a great activist: Her heart is giant, her mind is quick, and she's as naïve as an elf. She believes that every human being is good and kind and will do the right thing. Occasionally she will see otherwise: a guy throwing litter out his window, a mom sneaking soda into a water cup, a dog on a short leash chained to a tree. Dismayed, betrayed, and outraged, she processes these injustices as rare aberrations to her ideal world.

She's wide open with no armor, I often say about her. Not even a thin coat of cynicism to blunt the realities to come.

She was only in kindergarten when she wrote a letter to the People's Republic of China urging them -- adamantly, like pretty please Sirs -- to renounce its one-child per family law. Her sister was adopted from China, and the thought that her sibling might not have been due to unfair legislation struck her as wrongheaded. Families should have the freedom to make this decision, she argued. Her passionate plea, written in 5-year-old script, was signed with a string of x's and o's.

Hungry children, neglected animals, polluted environments, look out. If you think one person isn't big enough to make a difference, just try throwing away a piece of plastic in our house. You'd better hope the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle czar isn't around to bust you.

So when my daughter reads in her "101 Ways to Save the World" book that proceeds from a certain charity will benefit battered women and abused children, she wants to know what it means. What's battered? And why are children abused?

I would give anything if she never had to know about men who hit, or creeps who lurked behind bushes, or adults who hurt the children who trusted them.

I stumble my way through an explanation, realizing quickly that there is no way to sugarcoat abuse. At this exact moment, I know that my daughter is growing her first layer of skin.

When I was a little older than she -- junior high -- I had a friend named Amanda. She was beautiful: thick amber hair, olive skin, and the greenest of eyes. When she chose me to be her friend, I felt as if I had won a prize. I was scrawny and awkward and far from a beauty, but next to Amanda, I couldn't help feeling as if her glow transferred onto me. I liked her parents, too. Her dad was funny, her mom was bubbly. When I played at their house, there was always plenty of snacks, laughs, and smiles.

One day I went to school and Amanda wasn't there. A week, maybe two, passed, and still no Amanda. When finally she returned, I remember the relief that flooded through me. I ran to her in the courtyard, reached for her hands. "You're here. Finally." We hugged and then pulled back and looked at each other.

"I'm back, but not for long," Amanda said. "My mom and sister and I have to move -- to California. My grandparents are there."

"But why?" I whined selfishly because her moving was going to hurt me.

Amanda looked around, then down at her white Keds. Amanda always wore the whitest of Keds. "Because of my dad," she said, looking up briefly.

"What about?" I wanted to know.

"He did stuff."

I scrunched my face, shook my head, and flipped my palms face up. "What are you talking about?"

Amanda looked down at her Keds again, and that's when I got it. "Did he hit you?" I asked with indignation. I had seen a show on television where the dad hit the kids. "Oh my God, Amanda. Did your dad hit you?"

Amanda looked up at me, exhaled, and pulled her mouth into a tight little bow before she said, "worse."

Amanda and her mom and sister moved right after that. I never told my mother or anyone about Amanda's word -- worse -- because back then, I didn't know what it meant. A year or two passed, and then one day, I got it. I understood. I figured out what worse meant. I had learned through the accumulation of life experiences, natural maturity, and a whole lot of television what was worse than being hit.

Now, I sit on the sofa with my daughter in my arms, knowing that she, too, will someday know much more than she knows now. That she will shed her naiveté and in its place she will grow layers of skin: her armor. Within the next few years,she'll learn that the environment cannot be saved by selling lemonade alone, that walkathons will only go so far to treat abused animals, and that sometimes, being a friend, is the only thing we can offer to a girl who has endured worse.