Interdiction having failed, my next resort is to education. I am not about to take away the beloved gloves (after all, Daniel’s playroom already features a life sized — that is, about 3 1/2 feet — inflatable plastic punching dummy), so I decide it is time for father to teach son the manly art of self-defense. He dons the gloves. I expound on the left jab, not remembering till the next morning that he is left-handed. We spar a bit. Then I decide that it is time for a little moral education.
I begin: “Daniel, it is important to know how to fight, but it is even more important to know when to fight.”
I grow solemn. “There are only two times when you may fight. You may only fight when someone has started a fight with you — you are allowed to fight back — or when you are coming to help somebody who is weak and is being hit and needs your help. Do you understand that these are the only times when you are allowed to fight?”
At which point he whirls, flattens the dummy with a crushing right, and says, “Take that, shorty.”
So much for moral education. This episode and others have brought me to the highly self-serving conclusion that nothing parents do alters a child’s character anyway, so there is no need to fret that some misdirected pedagogy or slip of the tongue will forever ruin him. Nothing has so impressed me in my brief experience with fatherhood as the apparent autonomy of a child’s soul, the inner logic by which it seems to develop. It has a fixedness that is, perhaps happily, beyond a parent’s control. At least thinking so is a relief.
But there is one area in which as a father I do feel a great weight of responsibility, a need to measure every word. It is not in the realm of character building, but in the realm of truth imparting. Strangely, it is when asked a simple question of fact that I begin to feel trepidation. Not because I presume that a wrong answer will in any way affect his development. But because he so trusts me that any deviation from the truth would be a kind of betrayal.
“Why does water turn into ice when you put it in the freezer, daddy?” A child of 4 is a creature entirely without skepticism. Because he believes that father knows all, he believes that every response he receives is the oracular truth. To hear your child repeat to his friends, verbatim and with utter assurance, something that he heard from you, is to feel the power, and weight, of absolute trust. Such innocence is moving. I feel obliged to meet it with nothing less than the absolute truth that it assumes.
Such scrupulousness can lead to problems. On the water-ice question, I can find no child-appropriate analogy at hand, so I resort to the stickiness of atoms, to temperature as a measure of energy and some such high school physics. Within 30 seconds, I have lost him completely.
I thought this was a toughie until some weeks ago he asked me who God was. It is an inevitable moment in any child’s relationship with a father, but I found myself totally unprepared. I remember an acquaintance once telling me that he answered the question with “God is not a person, he is an idea.” I resolved never to give my child an answer of such stupid sophistication.
But what answer, then? The question was so difficult because it required me to lie. The God of a 4-year-old and the God of a 40-year-old cannot be the same. To inflict mine on him would be not just disillusioning but disorienting. I owed him, I figured, not the truth as I know it but as I knew it, once. I offered him the God of my childhood.
It wasn’t easy. I felt a twinge of remorse when I heard myself answer, “Where is He?” with, “In the sky.” Immediately wanting to retract, I later amended that to say “everywhere,” which Daniel found not just baffling but a contradiction of my first answer.
The colloquy lasted only a few minutes, thank God. It ended when I informed him that God not only created the world but cares about it, a proposition of which the adult me is radically unconvinced. Daniel came back with “Why?”
Desperate for an exit, I was visited with an inspiration. “For the same reason that mommies and daddies love their children.” Daniel appeared satisfied. He turned to talk of dinosaurs. Back on safe ground again, I resumed speaking the absolute truth.
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