Father Knows Least

My future poet and artist...or convict.

I’m beginning to think my wife and I have very little to do with how our children are turning out. Oh we nudge them in the direction we’d like them to go, and generally they go along with the important stuff, but they do and say things that are sometimes completely foreign to us. For instance my 11-year old is obsessed with guns. Neither of us have ever held anything more dangerous than a prop. I once played Leon Czolgosz, who managed to kill President McKinley, in a play and I had to fire a blank gun in that. But otherwise we’ve been stridently anti-gun—no toy guns for the kids when they were younger, no hunting innocent animals, no glorification of gun violence during Conor’s early childhood. So why does he play “Modern Warfare” and count kills by the hundreds? Why does he now have a plastic tub filled with an orange-tipped armory that if it were real would cause the next Waco? Why does he record “Guns Of the World” and “Deadliest Warriors” on the DVR and know the difference between an AK-47 and an AK-74?  Where did two liberals go so horribly wrong?

The two boys play a video game called “Bully” for hours on end. In this game, the protagonist is a punky little private school brat who picks fights with passing people in the hallways, steals whatever isn’t nailed down and arms himself with everything from stink-bombs to fire extinguishers. They would never do any of this stuff in real life, but they delight in doing it in fantasy. I suppose there’s something positive in that, but it still gives me a bit of pause. Are they acting out what they wish they could do? Are my Irish-faced darlings actually potential psychotic personalities who are headed for random shooting out of a bell tower? Or are they the kids who say please and thank you in public and can make insightful comments at a Playwrighting Lab? Or are they both?

They also curse like sailors on leave. There’s nothing that fills me with more pride than seeing my freckle-faced nine-year old son who resembles a young, innocent Mickey Mantle, scream “motherf’ing son of a b**ch” at the television screen when he strikes out during a video game. In real little league the kid is quite composed, dare I say sportsmanlike. In the comfort of his own home he turns into Tarantino mixed with George Brett after he had that home run waved off because he used too much pine tar. Mary El and I are no saints, but we watched our tongues in front of the children. Now they know words we’ve never heard of. And sure we can blame the movies or their older stepbrother or the influence of schoolmates, but it seems like they just really, authentically enjoy tossing around words you’d associate with bar trash, high school juniors or the cast of “Jersey Shore”. And again, neither of them would be caught dead saying a bad word in front of a teacher, or to an extended family member. They actually have class, at least publically.

So what to make of this schism between my childrens’ private and public lives? Is it an indication of mental illness or healthy adaptability to their surroundings? Despite all the accoutrements of juvenile delinquency, they are actually quite nice as kids go. They’re likable, kind to people around them, they’re loyal and averse to prejudice in any form, they’re artistic and athletic and feel terrible if they even think they’ve hurt someone’s feelings. They also fight with each other like trapped, starving feral cats, and they’re as stubborn as an old man in a diner who thinks he’s been shortchanged.

We are selectively permissive when it comes to parenting, we know. There is a school of thought that we should not indulge them by allowing fake guns, R rated movies, video games or cursing of any kind. We should have an iron fist about such things and come down on them with fire and brimstone the moment they step out of line. Spare the rod and spoil the child or some nonsense like that. Unfortunately, as far as Mary El and I are concerned, that kind of parenting most likely leads to teenage pregnancy. Sounds like a stretch, but we’re big believers in the theory that the more forbidden the fruit, the more likely a kid is to climb the tree and pick it, even if it’s waaaaay out at the end of the branch. A solid theory, I think, not that it matters at this point since the die has already been cast. But one that causes no small amount of self-doubt and agita.

I have to admit sometimes I wish I had those “Father Knows Best” kids who used terms like “swell” and “golly” and whose idea of a swear would be “gosh darn it!” Instead of playing “Modern Warfare—Black Ops” they’d play hopscotch or kick the can or Red Rover. They’d ask for advice when they needed it, not seek attention by flailing at each other or refusing to go to bed. They’d clean up after themselves and put their clothes away and do their homework as soon as they got back from school. Conor would have one of those silver cowboy guns in a brown holster with a matching white hat and sheriff star instead of an authentic-looking German Luger that would get him suspended with bi-weekly counseling sessions if he ever brought it to school.

Nah, I wouldn’t recognize them. Pass the effing salt, please.

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