“I love you,” I cooed playfully to my 3-year-old daughter Petunia the other day. “Do you love me?”

“No,” she snapped back with a mischievous grin. “Sad Mommy?”

I didn’t start weeping on the spot, probably because “Sad Mommy” is an unofficial game we play on occasion in which I mock sobbing, which in turn causes her to double over with peals of laughter. But that she knew there was any other response besides “yes” to that particular question — for quite possibly the first time ever — made me realize that her little coat of early-childhood innocence is starting to show signs of fading and peeling.

One of the few saving graces I’ve had with Petunia these days, in light of the fact that she stubbornly continues to star as the poster child for the Terrible 3s, is that she is unknowingly and involuntarily clinging to the last stages of bona fide purity. Like, she doesn’t know what a lie is just yet. (I know this because when a friend recently accused Petunia of lying about purposefully snatching a princess dress away from her during a play-date, the denial was absurdly adorable: “No! I did not do a lie!” she insisted. “My panties are clean!”)

She also continues to strip down naked without worrying who sees her, which I find delightful. Sure, my husband would have preferred she didn’t do it in the checkout line at the supermarket last month. (And really, he shouldn’t have let her, as Chris Rock has said so eloquently: A father’s only goal is to keep his daughter off the stripper pole.) But that she’s comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t know to care who sees her bum in all its glory makes me inexplicably giddy.

But like with the “I love you” rejection, there are undeniable chinks in the armor.

Like how quickly she’s becoming a master manipulator. Sure, humans know from birth how to get what they want (the sound of incessant crying in the middle of the night helps you figure out pretty quickly how to decode the secrets of newborns, who undoubtedly smirk inside every time you fall into their trap and pick them up), but she’s taking it to the next level with tremendous aptitude.

For example, she has revealed a freakish ability to extract an adhesive strip out of whoever will break first at the sound of their name being uttered in her tearful, most pathetic voice at nighttime.

“I bumped my knee!” she’ll cry roughly every other evening from her room minutes after she has been put to bed. “I am hurt!”

“Go to sleep!” one of us will yell from downstairs, emotionally spent after trying to get her for what always feels like an eternity to be done for the day.

“Daddy!” she’ll cry (or “Mommy,” if she thinks I’m the weaker parent that night). “I sick! I need a Dora Band-Aid.”

She has developed a knack for smelling blood and figuring out who is most hungry for it. Gone are the days when she didn’t know from playing one parent against another.

Still, I take comfort in knowing it could always be worse. Like she could be on a trajectory to be as corrupt as the young daughter of a woman known as the “Human Barbie” who received a $7,000 liposuction voucher in her stocking for Christmas, which was preceded on her seventh birthday last year by the promise of a boob job.

News reports last week revealed the Human Barbie (named such for having gone under the plastic-surgery knife to the ugly tune of more than half-a-million dollars) is now planning parties for girls ages 7 to 13 in Botox clinics, where they can receive spray tans and hair extensions, among other beauty treatments. (I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they add bikini waxes, teeth bleaching and rhinoplasty certificates to the loot bags.) Yes, Petunia likes having her nails polished, but she has yet to ask for fake eyelashes or a tramp stamp, so I consider us winning on the virtuous beauty front.

Of course not all little girls are doomed to a lifetime of innocence gone wrong, like a 9-year old I know who was at a Taylor Swift concert this winter and reported back about how the two women making out in the row in front of her were “doing S-E-X.” I should be so lucky if my daughter still thinks in a few years’ time that S-E-X is nothing more than kissing.

But birthday parties with fake baking and fake hair? I’m so grateful Petunia has her fourth birthday party planned out already for this summer and it includes nothing more sinister than a clown (although, of course, clowns actually can be quite sinister), animal balloons and musical nursery rhymes.

It’s hard to deny the innocence of a little girl whose idea of a good time is singing the alphabet song. It’s just unfortunate there will inevitably come a time soon when Sad Mommy is sad for reasons a lot less innocent than a fake declaration of unrequited love. Hopefully there’s a Dora Band-Aid for that.

More at www.meredithcarroll.com.

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