Better to be bad

"No secrets in this family!" my 4-year-old son Etani cried indignantly as his older sisters giggled at dinner the other night.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Okay," Athena sighed. "I'll tell you!"

Athena is just 7. She's recently lost both front teeth but the grown-up ones aren't in yet. The wide gap in the front of her mouth with only her baby canines visible makes her look a dull-toothed, giggly, good-natured vampire.

When Hesperus, who's 8, first went to preschool, she would come home and steadfastly refuse to answer a single question about her day. Athena decided she was ready to go to school at age — and insisted we find her one. She promised to tell us everything, and she answered all our questions with lots of details.

"It's something about the bus," Athena said. She looked at Hesperus and they both started laughing again.

"Don't tell her!" Hesperus pleaded, between giggles. James, Etani and I had no idea what was so funny and stared blankly at them. "We're not supposed to tell!"

"When Claire rides the bus home with us," Athena started talking quickly to get the whole exciting story out in one breath, "we play Bad Girls. Me and Hesperus and Claire and pretend to be bad and, see, it's a game where we have to be bad and do bad things and it's sooooo much fun to play Bad Girls with Claire and I wish Claire rode the bus home everyday!"

Bad Girls do bad REALLY BAD things like sneak candy and put sticks where people might trip over them and &

I hope you are sitting down while reading this &

don't obey grown-ups. Bad girls, in short, are bad.

On Friday nights, we have Shabbat dinner by candlelight. We say prayers over the challah bread, the wine and the light. Then we play a game where we take turns with a wooden spoon as a microphone and we say the best thing about our day, the worst thing, the silliest thing and one thing we are grateful for. When Athena was 5 and we were living in West Africa celebrating Shabbat and it was her turn to say what she was grateful for, she said, "I'm grateful for the world and everyone in it, even bad people. But I don't care about polluting things like cars, or guns or knives or things that hurt people."

For a child like Athena, who was born feeling sensitive to other people and who naturally cooperates and who tries to mimic her older sister but just can't cop an attitude without giggling and giving away that she's actually happy to oblige, Bad Girls is just the game she needs.

How many times have you heard a parent say, "Mary is my artistic one, Joanie is the athlete of the family." It's so easy to label children and lock them, unwittingly, into the roles you choose for them. I'm delighted to have a daughter who likes to cooperate but I also want Athena to know that she doesn't have to be perfect, kind, selfless, sharing and good every second of every day.

Luckily, I have Claire and Hesperus and Thursday afternoon bus rides.

And next time you come over to our house, be careful where you step.

is the author of "Why Babies Do That," the editor of "Toddler" and the co-author of a brand new book, "The Baby Bonding Book For Dads." She has a story in Shari MacDonald Strong's new anthology from Seal Press, "The Maternal is Political," about unconventional gender roles. You can join her and other contributors on May 29 at 8 p.m. for a reading at Powell's Books/Hawthorne in Portland.

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