Ruthie got called names on the playground today.

I picked her up from daycare a little after 5, which means most of the other kids had gone home already. She was out on the playground with just a few of the children from her class and several older kids. This is not her usual crowd. We’re just getting back into the habit of full-day daycare now that the semester is starting back up, and few days have lasted as long as today did. She doesn’t know these kids as well as she knows her regular classmates.

As soon as I got to the fence, she ran to me, beaming. “Mommy!” she cried, stopping only to climb her way over the railing that divides the play area from the sidewalk. Her smile was huge.

“Hi!” I said, kneeling down to give her a hug. This is a favorite part of my day.

“Mommy, those kids I’m following called me a baby.”

“They did?” I asked. She pointed across to three bigger girls on the playground. I’m not terribly gifted at guessing ages, but I suppose they were five or six.

“Yeah, and they called me gross!” She wasn’t crying or angry, but rather confused. A teacher overheard.

“Who called you gross, Ruthie?” she asked. Ruthie pointed again. “Girls! Did you call her gross?” They admitted it from the top of the slide, nodding. “Say you’re sorry.”

“Sorry, Ruthie!” they yelled.

Ruthie took my hand and we started out of the fenced playground area. “Why did they call me a baby?” she asked. “I’m not even little.”

I stopped walking and knelt down beside her. She is little. She’s tiny. She’s small for her age and can’t keep up with the other kids when they run and skip and climb. But as small as she is, she’s proud of how big she has gotten lately. When we pretend to be Power Rangers, she usually makes me be her hero, Jayden the Red Ranger, and the first thing she says to him is, “Jayden, look how big I am! I’ve been eating ALL my food!”

Ruthie playing at Mounds State Park in Indiana this summer

Ruthie playing at Mounds State Park in Indiana this summer

So when she asked me why they called her a baby, I explained it to her as best as she could: “Those kids are bigger than you because they’re older than you, and they think that means they can call you a baby, just because you’re smaller than them. That doesn’t mean you’re actually too small. You’re strong and perfect!”

She smiled then. A big, broad smile borne out of trust. Because she didn’t seem too upset over the part where they called her gross, I didn’t really go into detail on that one, but rather just assured her that no, she’s not gross. At all.

A few minutes after the whole conversation settled in, Ruthie piped up with her usual enthusiasm and optimism. “When I’m four,” she said, “I’m gonna go back to those girls and show them how big I am. Then they won’t think I’m a baby!”

I don’t know what to make of this exchange today. It’s not the first time kids at school have called her a baby, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to comfort her about it. She only has three more weeks at this school before she transitions to spending her days at my sister’s for the next year, until she starts preschool in the fall of 2014. I want her to learn to navigate interpersonal relationships, of course, but I also don’t want her to have these mean voices in her life yet. I don’t want her to have to learn to navigate meanness in her world. I’m sure those big kids aren’t terribly mean children, but I don’t want Ruthie to have to deal them.

I’m feeling very protective of her tonight. I’ve been watching her try to learn to do somersaults on the living room floor and practice her matching game. We’ve played Power Rangers together and watched part of a movie. She has made me laugh over and over again, like when she told her Dad that she’s only wearing one shoe because she’s busy playing Cinderella.

I don’t want this sweet little girl to have to worry about what other kids think of her. Not yet. I want what I think of her to be enough to shape what she thinks about herself. At least for a little while longer.