It is raining and dark on the drive home from my father and stepmother’s house in Fairfax. The wind buffets my car as we travel cautiously on tree-shrouded Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. My headlights bounce off the wet road, obscuring the painted lane makers. It’s December 1st and we’ve just celebrated Christmas for the first of what will be four times this year; a product of divorces, remarriages, in laws, exes, and the fact that my wife and I chose to raise our children within an hour of all of these people. The children in my backseat – my children – are exhausted. My son changed into his pajamas before we left. He was asleep before the windshield was fully defrosted. My daughter is awake. She has always fought sleep like an unbroken horse fights a bridle. She sits silently back there, punishing me for having countermanded her mother’s promise that we’d have time to read stories when we get home.
At last, she speaks.
“What is it?”
“You’re going to say, ‘No.’”
She was going to ask me to tune the radio to Rev FM, the DJ-less station that plays 20 identical-sounding pop songs in perpetual rotation. At another time on another day, she might’ve asked the question and I might’ve said, “Yes,” but somehow we both knew it wasn’t going to happen tonight.
As if providing an unspoken answer to her unasked question, I dial up KQED, our local NPR affiliate. There is a light groan from the backseat. It is 8:40pm. The third segment of Selected Shorts is beginning. The story is introduced and the guest reader begins. My daughter falls silent.
The story is uniquely adult. It is an essay by a woman about her shameful attachment to a toy pony collection. She fantasizes about her parents stumbling upon the ponies hidden under the kitchen sink in her Manhattan apartment after a horrible accident has brought about her premature death. I am listening, first, to ascertain the appropriateness of this story for eight year-old ears. The reader goes on to explain that the ponies were gifts, extorted in the early stages of romantic relationships from a series of emotionally limited and fatally flawed ex-boyfriends. There is nothing about this story that a child needs to hear. At the same time, there is nothing about it that a child should be shielded from. No curse words or abuse. No stereotypes or racial profiling. It is entirely adult, yet utterly benign. And my daughter is riveted by it.
She sits in rapt silence. Her interest in the story, inexplicable though I find it, gives me license to turn my own attention more fully to it. It is an excellent story; humorous, insightful, well written and well told. It is filled with jokes about failed affairs and self-effacing jibes at the author’s own foibles.
When it ends, she asks, “Dad, can you turn it back?”
“I’m sorry, Love. It’s over. I can’t turn the radio back. We might find it on the computer.”
“Okay. Can we try?”
“Sure. Not when we get home. But maybe tomorrow.”
“Mom likes that show, too.”
“Has she heard that story?” she asks.
“I doubt it. But she’s heard others.”
She falls silent again and I am left with my thoughts as we merge onto the newly paved and reflectorless freeway. On this rainy night, it feels especially perilous.
My thoughts turn, as they too often do, to my parenting skills, which I believe are poor, but most people tell me are above average, at worst. Among the many things I wrestle with is the amount of time and energy I spend explaining events and emotions to my young children. This, I’ve come to feel, is a unique flaw of my overeducated, left-leaning, co-sleeping, vaccine-questioning, quinoa-serving peer group. We had children later in life than any generation before us. And the regrettable result – likely the product of having too many years to think about how we would raise children before any of us had them – is a narrated childhood.
I am guilty, though less so than many parents I know, of over-explaining the world. Here’s why you’re feeling that way. Here’s how you could have said that differently. Your brother was wrong to take your MagnaTile, but it was how you handled it that was really the problem. Mommy is stressed at work, which is why she yelled and, yes, there was probably a better way to deal with that situation and she’s sorry, but mommy can’t always be the way you want her to be. That man pooped in the gutter because he doesn’t have a house of his own and sometimes people have bigger problems than we can understand. Which doesn’t make it okay to poop in the gutter, but we have to be careful when we say that something is “wrong” because sometimes people aren’t lucky enough to have the choices that we have. Uncle Steve acts that way because sometimes he has too many of a special kind of drink that only grownups can have, but even grownups shouldn’t have too many because too many can change the way your brain works, just for a while, and make you do or say things that you wouldn’t usually say. But Uncle Steve still loves us.
In the backseat, my daughter has passed the drive home making sense of a story that couldn’t possibly make sense to her. This is the forgotten essence – the wonderment – of childhood. We have romanticized the word “wonder” and imbued it with wide eyes and rainbows and astonishment. In truth, wondering is simply what we do when we experience something for the first time, and there’s no one there to explain it. Wonder is not revelation. It is the experience of inexperience. Emotions unnarrated and events unexplained. Too often we explain experiences to our children as they are having them in order to ensure their safe and proper understanding. In doing so, we rob them of wonderment, and of the joyous realizations that come years later when the meanings we made as children are re-viewed through the lens of adulthood. Stories eavesdropped around a late night card game. TV shows watched without permission. The strange neighbor with the one-eyed dog. Dad’s short fuse on Saturday mornings. Mom’s refusal to get a cat. The countless events and feelings that meant one thing as a child and will someday mean something so deliciously different.
Thinking these thoughts, I proudly resist the temptation to engage my daughter in a discussion of the story about the ponies. Talking about it, I am sure, would only ruin it. As we veer right off Highway 1 toward our house, Ira Glass’s bizarre mumbling comes across the speakers.
Today on This American Life…
“Oh, I love this show,” my daughter announces from the backseat.
I stop myself from asking, “What do you love about it?” and I turn off the car in driveway.