My 15-year-old was browsing through my CDs when he stopped in the “S” section and glanced up in bewilderment. This is what he said:
“I never knew Frank Sinatra was a real person.”
My mouth dropped open like a trapdoor. “Say what?”
Turns out Marlon had seen some old cartoons poking fun at a skinny teen idol named Sinatra, but it never occurred to him that this person might actually exist. I was talking to this same son a few months back and chanced to mention a singer named Billie Holiday. Marlon turned to me and said, “I never heard of him.”
Sometimes I’m stunned by the things he doesn’t know. But that’s how it is with children: They think the world began the day they were born.
It’s one of those glorious conceits that is the birthright of youth, this belief that nothing worth knowing happened before they got here. The world that came before theirs is seen - when they consider it at all - as a dimly lit place of unenlightened, pre-computer rabble. Its survivors are to be treated with derision and pity.
Which about sums up the treatment I get when I watch old NBA highlight films with my sons. I’m enjoying the sublime artistry of the Lakers in motion and the boys are giggling at how unhep the players look in their old-fashioned “booty shorts.” Booty shorts being the name kids have given to the tight, thigh-baring uniforms worn by players of an era before baggy was king.
Bryan, who is 12, asked me in all earnestness why the players of 10 years ago didn’t realize how stupid they looked. I tried to explain to him that 10 years ago, that look wasn’t stupid, but it was no use; 10 years is the vast majority of his life.
Sometimes, we forget.
I mean, our kids seem so much brighter, sharper, hipper than we were … sometimes we forget how young they are, still. How little they have yet experienced. Not just of basketball and booty shorts, but of life.
They live without context. For them, there is only the now. Only lives bristling with an immediacy and urgency most adults can scarcely recall.
Every friend is for life.
Every hot band is the best ever.
Every heartbreak is life-threatening.
Sometimes, while delivering the standard fatherhood lectures, I find myself marveling at how much of what I say is new to my boys. I’m talking elemental stuff about how life works. About friends and family, sex and love, education and excellence.
Things so basic you forget they even need saying. Because, of course, “everybody” knows them.
But “everybody” does not. To someone who’s never heard of the Chairman of the Board or the Lady who sang the blues, even simple, self-evident maxims are revelatory. Say them to a child and you can watch the gears in his head turning as he evaluates received wisdom. Assuming the wisdom catches on the gears in the first place.
It’s fascinating to watch. Frightening, too.
Because what if he rejects it? What if he has to learn the basics from scratch?
Bought sense is the best sense, mama used to say. By which she meant that you tend to remember clearest that which you pay most dearly to learn. So much of parenthood is about trying to spare a child at least some of that bruising transaction. But so much of childhood is about exercising a right to test and reject. To learn for themselves.
It seems way too much power to trust to someone who, just days ago, was a fetus. If I made the rules, no child could reject parental wisdom until he was at least 35.
Unfortunately, I don’t make the rules. I can only abide by them and watch with trepidation as children come of age, parents anxiously whispering wisdom in their ears.
My son grinned at his discovery that Frank Sinatra was real. I just shook my head in amazement and wondered what else he doesn’t know.