"What?" I was pretty sure it was going to be a positive comment, but decided to pave the way for an apology just in case she'd viciously pinched his son in a disagreement over the plastic animals: "Is she horrible?"
"No, no, she's not horrible. She's amazing. At her letters, I mean. She can write them all. I was amazed when I saw her. Does she practice at home?"
"Oh. Yes, well, I suppose. Not all of them, only the uppercase ones, most of them, and her S's are just squiggles that don't stop... She doesn't practice, I mean, we don't make her, but she likes to write things. She has a big brother, you know, and so she sees him doing his homework and ... "
I blushed and babbled. I didn't want the other parent to feel his child was lagging behind. His son is exactly Mabel's age, and a very typical four-year-old boy who likes to play with the big blocks and the trucks and couldn't be less interested in writing his name or wondering which way round a letter goes. I had one of those too - I know how they are.
He didn't care. He thought it was the best thing ever and that I should be praising her to the skies.
The thing is, I am proud of her abilities, but the fact that she got to this point earlier than some others might isn't really any reflection on our parenting, or even her personality. It's a combination of fine-motor-skills development, gender, birth order, genetics, and inclination that leads her to like letters and want to write them and be able to do so at this age.
But to be honest, I would far rather he had stopped me to tell me that she did something generous or kind, or even that she'd said something clever or funny or sweet, or displayed great powers of deduction or memory, than to praise her writing ability. She does say clever and funny things, and can even be sweet and kind on occassion, and those are the traits I'm more concerned with her learning (and displaying) at this stage of her schooling.
She's not in nursery school to learn to write, or read, or do math; those are just things she's picking up along the way, and call me crazy but I don't really want her to get them too soon. She's there to learn how to rub along with her fellow man, to relate to her peers, to develop a healthy respect for authority figures, and perhaps find some non-disruptive ways to let her crazy-silly-funny-clever personality shine through in a classroom setting.
Of course I'm proud of my precocious little girl, for many reasons. But next time you see a child make a generous gesture or use her good manners, be sure to tell her parents, because that's what really makes a mother's heart glow.