Truly Scary Things

According to my father|!!| Mark Twain had an ideal childhood and kids today are being stifled by overprotective parents.

“I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s autobiography lately,” my dad said to me the other day as we sat drinking Abitas at my kitchen table. “And I have to tell you, it really makes me feel sorry as hell for kids today.”

I glanced over at my daughter, drinking chocolate milk out of a BPA-free sippy cup and watching Dora the Explorer with her feet propped up on the dog.

“How’s that?” I asked him. “She has TiVo. I would’ve killed for TiVo as a kid.”

“You had something better than TiVo, and you had a whole lot less of it than I had,” he said. “You had the freedom to run around outside unsupervised. How much will Ruby get to run around?”

“We live in New Orleans, Dad,” I said. “It’s too hot for nine months out of the year anyway.”

“Well, Mark Twain ran free and wild. No one was worried about someone kidnapping him or about traffic or about whatever it is that parents worry about now. And that’s an ideal childhood if you ask me, outdoors in the wilderness, out in nature, just having fun.”

I know he’s right. He’s been right my entire life; I’ve made my peace with it by now. I mean, TiVo is pretty amazing, but I know it doesn’t make up for fresh air in your lungs and the wind in your hair and the sun on your cheeks and a bunch of other clichés that I don’t even know because I really kind of hate the great outdoors.

But I understand that he wasn’t talking about being outside. He was talking about freedom. He was talking about not smothering our kids, not overparenting, not overprotecting.

Ruby’s only 2, so of course I’ll go with her tomorrow when she goes trick-or-treating. But I can’t imagine ever being willing to let her go alone. I know I have to, and I know I will. I’m just glad it’s not this year.

But just because I don’t yet have to worry about letting her go out into the world alone doesn’t mean that I’m not already watching her become more independent. We were at the zoo a few weeks ago, and Ruby was climbing up the rocks at Monkey Hill. She refused to hold my hand, and so I followed her up the rocks, my hands right behind her back, ready to catch her if she stumbled. Whenever she turned to look at me, though, I pulled my hands away quickly so she wouldn’t see that they were there. This was partly because I fear the full strength of her toddler wrath, but it was also because I knew it was important for her to think she was completely independent. As we went up the rocks and down and back up and down again (and again and again), I realized slowly that I was going to be doing that, metaphorically and otherwise, for the rest of her childhood … and probably for the rest of my life. I was going to let her believe she was on her own while my hands were always hovering just behind her back, poised to save her before she slipped too far.

I know how cloyingly sweet that sounds, and if I’d read it in some kind of Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul book (which doubtless has just such an anecdote), I would’ve rolled my eyes. But realizing it on my own somehow made it powerful; it felt true.

I don’t know, of course, if this is a 21st-century notion; I don’t know how much Mark Twain’s parents worried about him –– though they certainly had plenty to worry about just surviving day to day. I don’t really think life is scarier now. I think we just worry about different things. Pertussis, for instance, doesn’t keep me up at night, but it killed its share of folks when Mark Twain was young.

Ruby right now is scared of monsters and ghosts and werewolves, deliciously scared, thrill-seeking. The only real thing that currently scares her is a flushing toilet.

But in the near future, and probably sooner than I think, she will have a valid fear, not just valid but relevant and realistic and visceral.

And chances are, because I’m scared of a lot of things, whatever scares her will scare me, too. But just as I always pulled my hands away before she noticed them behind her, I won’t let her see it.

For now, though, I will enjoy a pleasant, mildly spooky Halloween with my little girl, and after trick-or-treating, we’ll watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown –– because I’m lucky enough to have it on TiVo. (Which I still kind of think is better than freedom.)

Happy Halloween, everyone!


Categories: Joie d’Eve