In a Facebook post that has gone viral, a mother is speaking out after a hospital employee told her 4-year-old daughter, after getting hit in the face by a boy at school, “I bet he likes you.”
Merritt Smith brought her daughter Joni to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, after a boy in her preschool class hit her in the face with a metal teapot. Joni (pictured above) needed two stitches under her right eye, and the photo Smith posted on Facebook — which has been shared more than 33,000 times — shows that the young girl was bruised and swollen. When Smith arrived with her daughter at the hospital, she was alarmed by the response that one hospital employee had for her daughter.
“Dear man at the registration desk at Children’s hospital,” Smith wrote on Facebook. “l’m positive that you didn’t think that statement through. As soon as I heard it I knew that is where it begins. That statement is where the idea that hurting is flirting begins to set a tone for what is acceptable behavior. My four-year-old knows ‘That’s not how we show we like someone. That was not a good choice.’ In that moment, hurt and in a new place, worried about perhaps getting a shot or stitches, you were a person we needed to help us, and your words of comfort conveyed a message that someone who likes you might hurt you. No. I will not allow that message to be ok. I will not allow it to be louder than ‘That’s not how we show we like each other.’ At that desk you are in a position of influence, whether you realize it or not. You thought you were making the moment lighter. It is time to take responsibility for the messages we as a society give our children. Do not tell my 4-year-old who needs stitches from a boy at school hitting her ‘I bet he likes you.’ NO.”
The post, first written on Oct. 6, has more than 100 comments from users supporting Smith’s message. “The older generation in my family used to say they were love taps! [Definitely] not! Love and bruises do not belong together,” wrote one user. “That’s a terrible and dangerous mentality to breed,” wrote another.
Smith, who did not respond to Yahoo Parenting’s request for comment, also addressed the outdated idea that boys who tease young girls do so to hide crushes. “Pulling hair is not affection either,” she wrote in the comments section. “[Respect] each others’ bodies. Like me that way. Tell me you like me. Draw me a picture. Write me a letter, a poem…but do not confuse aggression with affection.”
Smith is clear that she is not placing blame for the incident on the child or the child’s parents, but that she started the conversation in hopes of creating awareness.
“Anyone who is a parent knows we are all winging it. Each of us has had a moment when our child made a poor choice,” she writes. “The other parents do give the right messages about expressing feelings in appropriate ways and I know they are upset about this. This is about all adults being part of the village and creating a culture where people know what healthy relationships look like and sound like, what it feels like to be in a healthy relationship.”
Smith also acknowledges that she doesn’t believe the hospital employee intended to relay a dangerous message. “We are each works in progress and can grow from our experiences. What has been does not have to remain. Awareness, empathy and responsibility are my only goals with this message,” she writes. “I do not mean to attack the hospital or get this man fired. He genuinely meant no harm. My intensity and intent is to change old scripts that do not serve us as adults and most certainly do not serve our children. …I know we can change the messages that guide our children as they learn to interact with one another, develop conflict resolution skills, choose empathy and stand strong in their sense of self.”
Nationwide Children’s Hospital posted a statement to its Facebook page addressing the incident on Friday. “We are aware of a recent comment made by a member of our staff to a family seeking care. Although we know the comment was made with no malicious intent, it is our wish to apologize and express to you that this is something we are taking seriously. This comment does not represent our philosophy as an institution. Since Tuesday, Oct. 6, we have reached out to the family, met with the employee and their management team, as well as our leadership in order to understand the situation and take measures to prevent this from happening again.”
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, says she was appalled and surprised when she first heard about Smith’s exchange with the hospital employee. “We’ve been trying to create messages, starting in preschool, that hands are not for hitting. That is not a way we show people we like them, or even what we do when we are angry,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “I thought we had moved past this kind of messaging.”
The lessons taught to young children can have long-lasting effects, Ray-Jones says. “Messaging becomes ingrained in the brains of young people, in infancy even, so it’s important that we are all very sensitive to the words that are coming out of our mouths. Preschool is when you are teaching children to use their words and teaching them about respectful communication,” she says. “With this message, what does this young girl walk away with? She walks away thinking if someone hits me it’s a sign they like me. When we know the prevalence of domestic violence — that one in four women and one in seven men will experience it — we want everyone to understand that violence is never OK. It is never a sign someone cares about you.”
Ray-Jones says this exchange is a reminder that there’s more work to be done, and that adults — especially policemen, teachers, hospital employees, and other people in positions that children are taught to trust — need continued education regarding how to speak to young kids. “What that employee should have said was ‘that must really hurt,’” Ray-Jones says. “He should have focused on the young girl, not on the person who created the violent behavior. With comments like the one he made, we are justifying what he did in some way, and we need to stop that.”
As for Smith, the mom who called out the employee’s comment, Ray-Jones says she should be commended. “We want people to challenge those statements,” she says. “That’s how we will create change. If we don’t say anything, people think these kinds of remarks are OK. But calling this behavior out is a message for other moms and dads that ‘If I hear it I, I can challenge it.’ Because parents need to be the best advocates for their child.”
Smith says she’s just happy to have sparked a dialogue. “It is time to rewrite the script,” she says. “What has been does not have to continue being.”
(Photo: Merritt Smith/Facebook)