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Jul 20, 2012
11:47 AM

Small Heart, Big Love: A Sweet Summer Moment

'Xiao Xin' was just a standard Chinese warning tucked in with a LEGO keychain. But for this mom of three, it was an eye-opening little life lesson.

Small Heart, Big Love: A Sweet Summer Moment

We were on our way home from a mad dash to the mall to pick up a graduation gift. It was 95 degrees outside and I had all four windows down, since my Honda's air conditioner was being problematic. Lily, my 16-year-old, should have been at the wheel practicing her driving on her learner's permit, but I had gone all PTSD after that last experience with her 50-mph parallel park job in the CVS lot, and I was simply too hot for stroke-like spikes of adrenalin.

Hanna, age 13, had purchased a keychain at the mall LEGO store, and it unwrapped with a tiny sheet of warnings. She handed the paper, covered in Chinese calligraphy, up to the front seat to her big sister, who had just finished year number three of high school Mandarin.

"What does this say, Lily?" Lily looked at the Chinese characters carefully and answered "Xiao Xin … Small Heart."

I glanced at her sideways. "What? I would have thought it would say, 'Be careful – small parts – not for kids under 3.'"

"It does," Lily said. "'Small heart' is 'be careful' in Chinese. You know, protect yourself … keep your heart small so it won't get hurt."

Aieeee. How perfect!

Why waste time on general admonitions like, "Be careful" and "Don't do anything stupid," when you can cover the worst of life's hellish misfortunes with a powerful, two-character piece of specifically helpful advice: small heart. I could use this new term on almost all parenting situations, and easily protect my three daughters and my own mom-vulnerability from little downfalls and large sorrows: No running in platform flip-flops! No putting watch batteries in your mouth! No falling in love with 17-year-old K-pop dancers with cars and undetermined intentions! SMALL HEART!

Driving along, I began to see true potential in this Chinese phrase; I could make the term personal, and use it for dramatic effect. Graduation party? I'm on it. What I say: "Have fun! Be home before 11 p.m.! (Tap chest meaningfully) Small heart." Translation: "Have a nice time but don't leave your soda unattended and if I get a call from the police it will kill me and definitely not be good for you."

This could be fun, but I think I might be kidding myself – and I'm pretty sure that all the moms in China have already figured out the flaw in this handy Xiao Xin idiom. There is no smalling-down a parent's heart, which overgrows quickly and remains painfully over-sensitive. We warn our children to be careful, we remind them how to make good choices, we even teach them to drive our car – but our warnings and reminders are mere talismans, and our repetition masks both our darkest parental fears and our brightest hopes for our children's future. What I really mean when I bark, "Be careful!" is "Be happy, be healthy, be loved, stay mine."

However, now I will be sure to add in extra juju from my counterparts on another continent, in hopes that its protective powers will help my daughters through high school, college and beyond: Keep that heart small, damnit – and let international mother-magic keep us all safe from breaking.

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