Sunday, June 22, 1997 — Please, Dad. Tell Me the Answer.

A sweltering, gloomy day. I went alone to Fort Mott, a derelict turn-of-the-century gun battery – now a ramshackle state park – that sits on the Delaware River shore opposite Peapatch Island. A ferry run by the Delaware River Authority carries sightseers to Peapatch and its Civil War era fort from Fort Mott and Delaware City. Having seen the fort on a previous visit, I elected this time to visit Delaware City, which was also billed as having a fort to look at. But upon disembarking, I encountered no sign or mention of Fort DuPont. After a listless 30-minute walk through the old but featureless town, I returned to the dock and waited for the boat.

For a quarter of an hour, I shared the dock space with a curious little boy and his patient father. I feel about children much the way I feel about dogs. In general, I approve of them and am quite prepared to like and even love them individually. When I was younger, I thought I liked all dogs, but the years have convinced me that this was a naive position. There are dogs who annoy, dogs who smell, dogs who don’t have much going on in their eyes. I no longer feel compelled to make friends with every mutt I come across. Children, too, are mixed bag. The mere fact of their youth does not charm me particularly. In the company of their parents, they do not strike me as innocent little bundles of potential so much as unformed – dare I say larval – versions of the adults who bore them. It doesn’t takes much imagination as a rule to see the sour-faced weed that is the father already blooming behind the smooth cheeks of the son. If this sounds bitter or cynical, I don’t mean it to. It’s simply that I am out of step – as I am in so many matters these days – with the contemporary mythology that underlies our public pronouncements. Thus, I do not subscribe to the myth that children constitute a natural perfection that can only be contaminated through contact with us. The process by which they become imperfect adults is not necessarily a sad tale of innocence betrayed by the ugly and poisonous intrusions of the world. Inevitably the world will intrude. And the world is what they will have to live in. Perhaps it is laudable that we desire to remake the world in the fictitious image of perfect children who do not exist. But I think not. To me, it is not only unreasonable but wrong to want for all our little darlings that they experience no heartbreak, no unfairness, no temptation to vile and corrupting influences, no assaults on the fabric of their individual selves. For these are precisely the experiences that will, over the course of a lifetime, sculpt their characters and inspire their accomplishments. If we lived in a world that couldn’t break our hearts or sap our will to live, what meaning would still attach to the words ‘courage,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘perseverance’?

The urge to protect and shelter children from all harm is a naturally maternal one. It is no more realistic than the mother’s belief that her baby is more beautiful than every other. And it is an urge that all parents have to suppress if they are either to prepare their children for adulthood or live with their own mistakes in child-rearing. Again I am reminded of dogs – specifically of puppy books, which preach above all else the virtue of consistency. The puppy won’t learn what you want him to do, they say, if you let him jump up sometimes and not others. Consistency is a nice idea, of course, but it’s also a fantasy. Inevitably there will be different sets of rules for different moods. When you’re happy and unstressed, the puppy is going to get away with murder. He’ll jump up on you and you’ll dance with him. He’ll beg at the dinner table and get a tasty morsel of roast beef. He’ll refuse a direct order to lie down and you’ll pat him on the head, saying ‘Okay. Don’t lie down then.’ When you’ve had a bad day, though, the puppy won’t get away with anything. You’ll tell him he can’t bark at the squirrel. You’ll insist that he lie down, right now, in an imperious tone of voice. So does this mean that your puppy is destined to become a ruined neurotic who can’t ever figure out what he’s supposed to do? No. He becomes adept at reading your moods. He learns to recognize when it’s a no-nonsense time and becomes appropriately submissive and ingratiating. Inconsistency breeds in him a capacity for subtlety and for sophisticated emotional interaction which has always seemed, to me, preferable to the eagerly obedient automatons paraded before us by dog trainers.

In our home lives, we know this about children, too. We may want to shelter them from cusswords, but then there’s the day you hit your thumb with the hammer and a very bad word escapes before you can stop it. Is the child who hears it – this unsullied little angel – spoiled forever by the experience? No. He is encountering a necessary part of his learning process. When he begins to argue, as he will, that he is not allowed to do something he has observed you do – i.e., he charges you with inconsistency – and you counter with the news that he’d better get used to it, the first step is taken in the bruising life-long business of changing root assumptions that affect both behavior and personal identity.

The milestones of the loss of innocence are not, therefore, some microcosm of the Fall of Man. The tabula rasa may be pure, but it is at best a simple-minded purity, a literal blankness that is innocent of sin, yes, but also of accomplishment, experience, and meaning. The act of writing on the blank tablet is to imbue it not with a stain, but with a unique identity that did not exist before. If our children are angels, they are angels by default, and unless they are miraculously atypical, they will not remain angels for very long no matter how pure our intentions may be.

Moreover, if we believe our own science of genetics, even the purity of the tabula rasa is a fiction. The sense of seeing the flawed parent waiting inside the tender shell of childhood is not an illusion, but a demonstration that many propensities, for good and ill, are built into the basic design. The propensities need shaping, and again, the shaping process is not akin to contamination but to cultivation.

I can’t think that all these ideas are alien to most Americans. What then is the source of our saccharine national sanctification of ‘the kids’? I hasten to declare that I am not suggesting a conspiracy. Nothing as pervasive as the new religion of child protection could be a conspiracy. It is, must be, a response to basic conditions in the culture as a whole.

But where was I? On a boat dock in Delaware City, watching the interaction of a plump, hairy-legged dad and his relentlessly inquisitive son. All the thoughts I’ve just related flashed through my mind as I observed them. The boy – are there nerd angels? – had the same engineering bent that probably earned his father’s salary. What does that black box in the boat do, Dad? What does that sign say? Where is our boat, Dad? Will it be bigger than those boats? What’s ‘no wake’ mean, Dad?

Unhurriedly, Dad answered every question. He pointed out a boat that was making a wake as it approached the channel our dock overlooked. ‘Do you see that?’ he asked. ‘The way the water is splashing out the sides behind the boat? They don’t want you to make a wake because it can disturb the soil and the wildlife.’ He didn’t explain who ‘they’ might be, or why you had to do what ‘they’ wanted. This much was already known. While we were playing twenty questions, a marine patrol boat growled into the dock right in front of us, and the boy folded the event into his field of curiosity. The police officer was wearing a holster with a forty-five automatic and half a dozen clips on his Sam Brown belt. He was also wearing a Kevlar vest, color-keyed to the brown and olive drab scheme of his uniform. I looked out toward the river, half expecting to see the high-speed drug boat which had occasioned such apparel, but it was just a hot day on the waterfront of a small town. Dad answered questions about how the little whaler’s outboard was switched on and off, why the motor was still running even though the boat was already tied up, and when the life preserver attached to the gunwale might be employed. Throughout, the officer, who was perhaps eight feet from the father and son, never looked up, never deigned to notice the conversation he had to have overheard. A cop is a cop.

I wondered what Dad thought he was raising his son to be, what kind of life he envisioned for this young variation of himself? Did he want the boy to be continuously safe from every conceivable threat to his health, virtue, and self-esteem? Or was he – as it looked to me – self-consciously intent on raising one more soldier in the necessary army of those who have to do the real work? And would this be enough for him, that his son would find a well paying job and do it reasonably well – despite the burgeoning temptations to sit down and demand accommodation from everyone else?

I found myself imagining the set of questions the boy didn’t know to ask and wondered how Dad would answer them. Will there be more and more forms to fill out forever, Dad? Will it be more fun to have a house and a car and a family than it costs in taxes and insurance and compliance with federal, state, and municipal regulations? Will there ever be a time, Dad, when I’ll have the peace of mind to think about what everything means and why it’s so important for me to go to work and obey the rules and invest all my discretionary income in financial instruments that still won’t save me from the tax man? Is there going to come a day when anyone in a position of authority can take a magnetized card out of my wallet and know everything about me right away – including the name of my mistress and the amount of my unpaid parking tickets – and decide whether or not I can be allowed to travel from Delaware to New Jersey? Is there any way you know of that I can get through the next sixty years without winding up in a state-controlled nursing home that will swallow up all the money I saved so carefully in my productive years? Or is it really the case that no matter what choices I seem to be making, I am only doing what I’m required to do because whatever it is that’s calling the shots is way too big to resist, and maybe even too big to see? What do you say, Dad? Can I get through the next sixty years without making a wake of some kind that will bring the whole wrath of the bureaucracy down on my neck? Can you keep me safe from all that? Can anyone keep me safe from all that? Please, Dad. Tell me the answer.
Then the boat came, and we all got into line without being told and clambered aboard, dutifully sitting down when the captain’s loudspeaker reminded us, for our own safety, that regulations required all passengers to remain seated during the trip to Fort Delaware and from there to Fort Mott. Like all the rest of them, I obeyed the regulations to the letter.