A Few Scrapes

We had a playdate this morning with many of our friends from the neighborhood. Almost all of us has a child near two years old, or a little older, and we’re all beginning to feel the same thing- that our children need to be with other children.

Oh, it’s awful. Harder for my friend Deb and her tender hearted cub, Augie, than it is for me, but for all of us it is just awful. The world is a cruel place, there’s no other word for it, and you have to figure out where the line is between education and disaster.

At the playdate this morning, Barnaby came running over to me with big tears in his eyes. It’s impossible to describe the desperate deep horror of your child showing up with an injury that you were in the room for, but didn’t see and didn’t bother to prevent. The guilt, the recrimination, the sheer torture you put yourself through, wondering what you should have done, wondering what your child will thinking of you… wondering what kind of monster he will turn in to since you’ve so obviously dropped the ball.

Barnaby, with big round wet tears, told me he needed a kiss and was holding his hand. In less than a second, really at first glance, I knew that he hadn’t been injured, he’d just been hurt. He said, “I touched it and it was really hot. You need to blow on it…” and I realized he had touched the radiator and had found it uncomfortably warm.

I was sitting right there and I reached over and hovered my hand above the radiator before touching it. It was warm, sure, but not too bad.

So what do you do? This is the question, and this is what you have to answer for the entirety of your child’s life. In Parenthood, Uncle Larry has asked his father for money to settle a gambling debt, otherwise he’s gonna be killed. Larry is in his thirties. This problem will never stop, these decisions have to be made, and the impact of the decision will resonate for the rest of your child’s life.

Should my parents have done more to steer me away from the mistakes I’ve made? I think so, yes. I think I was allowed too much freedom, I was allowed to destroy my life, and it really is mostly luck that I didn’t end up doing the kind of damage that one can’t return from. I never killed anyone, I was never arrested, I’m still alive and I’ve never declared bankruptcy or discovered a long lost child of mine. But, that’s just luck, I *DID* do things that could have caused any of these things to happen, and the right set of things just lined up to make sure none of it did.

But, I did marry poorly at first, and I did fail out of high school. I do find myself closing in on forty without many discernible skills, without employment or even the hope of it, and without a clear sense of what my obligations are to my family and to the world. The things that I’m very good at are, again, just luck. I have a lot of talent as an actor and a musician, but these ears are a genetic lottery, and my acting talent was never fostered by ANYONE, let alone my parents.

They weren’t bad parents, mind you. I don’t know anyone who loves their children more than my mom does, and I don’t know anyone, honestly, who wishes they were a better father than my dad. One of the reasons that he dislikes my mom so much, in my opinion, is because he wishes he could have been her, when it comes to us.

But neither of them could stop me from laying waste to my life. They didn’t want to have the fight with me. But, I can tell you, if they had, they would have won.

And now I face the same decisions with Barnaby. Hot things are hot, if you decide to touch them, then you will feel the discomfort. Obviously, he’s two, and he just touched a hot radiator, of course he should be comforted. And… of course, that’s what I did. I picked him up and kissed his hand, like he asked.

But the day wore on, and he kept coming back to me, saying he needed kisses. Because the other kids were running in to him, or taking toys, or knocking him over. And… I didn’t draw a line, but I just kinda tried to get him to tough it out. I asked him, “Are you hurt, or are your feelings hurt?” I said stuff like, “It’s okay, Barnaby, there are a lot of toys and you have to take turns…”

Ugh, it’s the very stuff I remember hearing when I was a little boy, and I remember it made me feel like I was alone in the world, abandoned. My first day of school in London, when I didn’t know where I was supposed to go, I made it all the way until lunch before I just fell apart. I have a memory, clear as day, of sitting in the cafeteria, sobbing and sobbing, while a teacher tried to cut up the boiled potatoes. I was alone, I didn’t know where my family was, and this woman, who spoke with the same strange language and accent as every other person here, was in my face trying to get me to eat food that made me gag. And I was hungry.

Today, I hated myself for saying these things to Barno. I don’t want it to be a battle, I don’t want to fight him to do what is right for himself. I don’t want him to have to stand up and suck it up and soldier through. I remember saying to my mom, “It isn’t fair” and being told that age-old parental cop-out “Life isn’t fair.”

Maybe it isn’t, for grown-ups. But is there a golden age when you get protected, when fairness is enforced by those greater in both stature and capacity? How old was I when I first learned that my older brothers couldn’t possible be punished for what they did to me, that there was no rule of law? How long did it take me to realize that I felt better about the tyranny of our house if I passed it on to my little sister?

So… Barnaby said he wanted to go home, and I told him I wanted to stay for ten more minutes. The moms at the play-group are my friends, and I don’t see my friends. I love these women a lot, and it’s incredibly reassuring to be able to talk with a large group of people who are going through the same thing you are.

But, a minute later, he asked to be picked up, and when I picked him up, he gave me an uncharacteristically strong hug. I walked with him into the other room, where it was just the two of us, and he said, “I want to go home and play with toys with Barnaby and toys and Daddy only…” and I knew what he meant. We put on our jackets and left.

Because, I wanted to be there, but maybe for another few months, the decisions need to be about him. Maybe another year. He’ll know soon enough that when he gets knocked down on the playground, his dad and mom won’t be there, and the teacher won’t care. In the same way that he’ll know that when he gets fired, his boss isn’t gonna sweat it, when his girlfriend leaves and steals his CDs, some of his friends will side with her. He’s gonna know these things soon enough.

So, maybe I’m making the same mistakes as my parents, maybe I’m not doing right by him. But, let’s say, he just gets until he’s three… it’s just three years. Maybe I can make it so that his first three years, it seems to him that everything IS fair. And maybe when he touched a warm radiator, his dad will just kiss it better and not try to teach him anything. Maybe he just gets a chunk of time to be a protected little boy, and the world can wait.