This was the conversation I was dreading—the one probably every father dreads—and it was happening much earlier than I’d expected. I’d been steeling myself all day for it; I knew neither of us was ready. Watching my boy bound out the doors of his school, all smiles and sprints—I’m free!—I wished he’d slow down. The week before, he ran face-first into a wall of his own curiosity, saw things he shouldn’t have, things which he certainly would’ve kept to himself if I chose to let it go. I wondered what his expression was then.
At 9 years old, Oscar could have easily passed for 12 or 13: He stood 5’2” and weighed 125 pounds. You had to really look at his face—with its lingering bits of chub and soft, trusting eyes—to remember how young he actually was.
“So, I have to talk to you,” I told him, once we were inside the car and away from other ears.
He shrank in the passenger seat, bracing for the worst. I quickly reassured him he wasn’t in trouble, he didn’t do anything wrong, but there was this thing that I knew and it had to be out in the open. I jumped right into it.
“I know you were looking at porn.”
Oscar gets easily defensive, always quick to deny wrongdoing—even when he’s told he didn’t do any wrong—and so I expected his reflexive protest of, “No I wasn’t!”
“Ossie,” I intoned, making clear the fact that he was speaking out of turn. "I know you did. For a fact, and lying to me isn’t going to make this any better.”
His eyes darted back and forth, as if looking for an escape hatch inside his own head. He was formulating a plan, something to get out of this situation, and then he stopped. His brow furrowed.
“Wait,” he said, sitting back upright. And then he followed up with possibly the sweetest thing he ever asked me, given the context. “What’s porn?”
I couldn’t help but smile. His defense hadn’t been self-preservation so much as it was genuine confusion. “It’s videos and pictures of people having sex,” I told him. He slumped back into embarrassment. “Oh. Then, yes. I looked at porn.”
A silence hung in the air between us as I tried to figure out where to go from there. He looked at me, eyebrows up and eyes wide open, on alert for whatever would come next. The past winter had torn up the road, and his still baby-fatted cheeks bounced along with the car as we headed back towards our house. The anticipation of my response was clearly getting to him.
“Are you gonna say anything else?”
“To be honest, I hadn’t really thought this far ahead,” I told him. “I only planned as far as this, telling you I knew.”
Of course, a few million things had gone through my head in the week since my discovery. I wasn’t looking for what I found when I went snooping through his cheapie Android tablet. Oscar loved video games, and lacking the XBox or Playstation consoles he desperately wanted, he'd instead watch videos of other people playing games on YouTube. This is a thing, by the way, if you didn’t know. Teenagers and twentysomethings record themselves playing games like Minecraft or Call of Duty, providing voice-over commentary comprised mostly of irritating screams and laughter. I hated everything about these videos, from the pointlessness of watching them, to the submental chatter, to the fact that my seething lack of understanding of modern trends meant I was getting old and marching closer to irrelevance. But good parenting doesn’t mean you support every dumb thing your kid is into; sometimes it just means you don’t stop them from doing things because you think it’s dumb.
Still, there had to be limits, and Oscar had recently been made aware of the existence of Grand Theft Auto 5 at another house. For a few weeks, it was “GTA 5 this” and “GTA 5 that,” and I made clear that this was not a game he should be watching, let alone playing. I’m definitely no prude, though, and it’s because of this that Oscar couldn’t understand why I was so vehemently opposed to the game. He relentlessly badgered me to give a him a firm age when I’d let him play it. But how do you tell a 9-year-old that there really isn’t an appropriate age to role-play as a drug dealer who shoots prostitutes in the face? Plus, then I’d have to tell him what a prostitute is. I told him to drop it, that it just wasn’t going to happen in my house. When that succeeded in keeping him quiet, I became suspicious.
I figured something was up when he declared himself tired one night and asked to go to bed early, and could he bring the tablet to bed and just play a few games before sleep? Later, when I went into his room to say goodnight and he clumsily stuffed the tablet under his pillow, it was clear he was hiding something. But I didn’t want to make a big deal of it right then. Bedtime is a very important moment in a single parent’s day. I still had to do the dishes from dinner and make the next day's lunches for Oscar and his sister, and I wanted very much to be sleeping before midnight.