“Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” as the song written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe goes. Especially for the two who were nearby at church the other night. Because their behavior suggested that childhood still exists in corners of our culture.
Each of these youngsters appeared to be about 5 or 6 years old. Both wore girlishly styled, straight, long brown hair. One girl shared the pew in front of me with her grandmother. The other girl, directly behind me, was in the company of her mother.
Mother and daughter were accompanied by a third party, a 15-inch, pudgy stuffed bunny, which the child positioned on the back of the pew that I occupied. I didn’t see its floppy ears or its pink tutu until I nearly knocked the cute creature off its perch when I sat down for a lector’s reading of the prophet Isaiah’s poetic words. As I turned to look at the girl and her rabbit, confusion merged with irritation in her eyes. So I apologized for bumping into ballerina bunny and promised to make room for “her” the next time. The youngster looked at her mother momentarily and then back at me. When Mom returned my smile, so did she.
Although a church service might not seem like an appropriate place for a dancing rabbit, this imaginative little girl conducted her bunny’s business with a sense of decorum. Like a parent determined to keep her child engaged during the Mass, the youngster put coins in her bunny’s paw before dropping them into the basket at collection time. Not only that, during the segment of the service when worshipers shake hands and offer one another best wishes for peace, the child offered her rabbit’s foot to anyone who was willing to rub — I mean shake — it.
Meanwhile, the other little girl directly in front of me nestled close to her grandmom while sitting, standing or kneeling throughout the Mass. Several times, the woman’s shoulders shook as she emitted a hard, dry cough. After each coughing spell ended, the granddaughter patted the woman’s shoulder or rubbed her back with her small hands in a series of soothing motions. As the grandmother lifted her head toward the child, love flooded the space between them.
Every so often, this demure little girl looked back for a peek at the feisty little girl with the chubby bunny. When the spectating child spotted the other one extending her ballerina bunny’s paw to churchgoers for handshaking, she smiled timidly before discreetly reaching into a pocket and producing a petite, lanky, stuffed bunny of her own that had seen plenty of hugs.
Among Old and New Testament readings, hymns, a sermon about prophets, prayer and Holy Communion, I watched with relief these two little girls being little girls.
If pop culture is any indication, children — especially young girls — continue to be pressured to grow up too quickly. A lot of that pressure is exerted through sleazy entertainment, unsuitable marketing, and more that fast-tracks childhood by sexualizing it. In some circles, age 6 is the new 16. Recently while walking through the girls’ underwear department of a local store, I thought I had taken a wrong turn into a Victoria’s you-know-what. Why on the planet would someone outfit a 7-year-old in a cheetah- or zebra-patterned bra?
Fortunately, the female sexuality that the two toy-bearing girls displayed as they interacted with the women who accompanied them, and during their child’s play, expressed itself in healthy ways. While these little ones might be nurturing by nature, it’s also likely that they learned about self-respect and respect for others from the ladies who brought them to church.
“You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by,” wrote songwriter Graham Nash in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song “Teach Your Children.”
God said something similar in the Ten Commandments.