Our son is 5 years old. We live on a wonderful block, where evenings ring with the voices of children at play beneath a canopy of huge pecans and sycamores. It’s a street of two-story middle-class dwellings, built in the teens and 70s, sailing along on kneeling piers and heaving soil like pirate ships on a choppy sea.
If you took our son out of this neighborhood, where he has lived all his life, and put him in a neighborhood where the police helicopter did not fly over the house at least twice a night, I honestly do not believe he would be able to sleep.
Last year. Will’s best friend’s dad got into a situation where he was shooting through the upstairs window at a man who had fled the house carrying a television set, and who appeared to be intent on getting back in again. For several weeks after. Will and Elliott played a game -"Shooting Out the Back Window at Robbers."
I mention all of this as prelude, because I want you to know that real live violence is a part of the landscape for my son. You want to know immediately, I’m sure, why we don’t go find another landscape. All I can say is that there are powerful trade-offs. Our own pocket of the city is a politically competent and therefore quite secure little enclave, most of the time. And the families in our neighborhood all know each other, have picnics and feuds together and live in a way that reminds me of the small Midwestern communities where I grew up.
But we do have to talk to our son about violence, and all of the other middle-class urban people around us who have children are the same way. They all talk to their kids about violence all the time.
The result of all this guidance and preaching is that, for our children, the topic of violence-and why didn’t we see this coming?-is the parent-goading hot button of all hot buttons.
One evening Will and Elliott are walking by the television set during the evening news. On screen is footage of some kind of horrible shoot-out. Will stops, grabs the set with both hands and shouts, "Hey, Elliott! Look! Violence! Don’t you just love it?" (Then, of course, they both shoot the old hippie-dippie dad a look, to see if he’s got his Cotton Mather face on yet.)
Being opposed to violence is the good-boy answer to all questions. I attend a lecture by the rock lady at my son’s Montessori school. She asks the little children gathered on the rug at her knee why, when we want to open a fossil rock and see what’s inside, we do not simply throw the rock down hard on the driveway to break it.
A little boy named Ben flings his hand in the air. "Because it would be too violent. " he says.
My wife and I are not among those who think the popular culture of the nation is depraved or malevolent toward children, but we do think it may be callous. The culture is, at the very least, dismissive of innocence.
Every time we try to limit what our child sees, he somehow manages to flip the transaction around so that we are, instead, meting out little glimpses and versions of violence as rewards. No, you cannot see Terminator II, but yes, you can see Hook. Yes, Hook has violence, but it’s... OK violence. No, it’s not good violence. Look, do you want to see this movie or not?
Will and Elliott produced their own version of Hook on the front porch, for which Will dictated playbills that I was to print up in the home office. The headline was Hook: A Play. The subhead was "It will have a little bit of violence."
Fine with me. I figure sublimation is at least half of what literature is for.
My son and I have endured a long, often painful standoff with each other in the matter of the movie, Terminator II, which I now say he cannot see ever. I did waffle, one time. I proposed to rent the movie, choose a few brief segments and let him watch them, so that he would be able to tell Elliott he had seen Arnold Schwarzenegger (and get off my back).
He came back to me an hour later, having pondered at length. "Papa, " he said in a fluting angelic voice, "I only want to see the gross parts, especially the part where he cuts out his own eyeball."
I told him the deal was off.
I have a few clear memories of 5 years of age. We lived in a green little town named Alma. It had been five years since the end of World War II. I remember sneaking through the dawn with my older brother to watch the elephants raise the tents of the Clyde Beatty Circus. There were farms at the edge of town. There was terrible violence in the world, but I did not see it. Never in the far reaches of my universe was there an image of a man cutting; out his own eyeball.
The kids on our block already know there is something whacked out about parents on this particular topic: On the one hand, the adults provide a universe of bullets, eyeball-gouging and gunships, and, on the other hand, they prattle endlessly that good little people are never violent, not even to their fossils.
As adults, we cannot help but have mixed feelings about how much they know or ought to know. Omission-too few warnings, too little explanation-is a sin for which one might never forgive one’s self. It’s more than a question of simple safety: Frankly, our children need a little bit of psychological armor, so they are not crushed by what awaits them.
It’s so hard to know what will stick. We know our children will dismiss our version of what is normal as a joke. We can only hope they will come back eventually to our version of what ought to be.
When we were kids, they put us through drills in which we cowered beneath our school desks to escape the A-bomb. I don’t know any members of my generation who grew up believing in desk-cowering as an adequate strategy for dealing with nuclear holocaust. But almost all of us grew up hating the bomb.
Violence, no matter what we say or how we spin it, will be huge in our children’s universe, screened and muffled by taboo, always wriggling in the background, like sex in the 1950s. Will they be empowered by their innocence? Or will they chop us up like tuna and have us for lunch?
In the late evening, when they fly across the lawns, shrieking and laughing with battery-operatted swords in their hands, I try to imagine.