My Son, the Rebel

ROBERT FONTAINE is the author of books, a play, and many light articles for the ATLANTIC and other magazines.

My son, Mike, who has just turned nine with something of a flourish, is, I am happy and surprised to report, resisting the frantic trend that is attempting, too successfully, to make children into small adults.

The layman with the faintest sense of biology and psychology knows that it is the long period of childhood and adolescence that gives man whatever advantage he has over the rattlesnake, the dwarf bee, and the gibbon.

Yet I have seen tots tottering out of kindergarten in caps and gowns, a uniform that is ludicrous even on college graduates and is absurdly painful on little children. A boy puts on long pants as soon as he has legs, and a girl uses lipstick and eye makeup about the moment she stops eating it. There are bras and girdles for “little ladies" of eight and nine, to what purpose I know not. Formal dress begins around age ten, and by twelve a boy is considering trading his bicycle for a small engagement ring. I am sure we shall presently see evening wear for infants consisting of black diaper and white tie.

I shall leave to psychiatrists the neurotic reasons for the frenzied eagerness of parents to turn their children into grown-ups long before the children are ready. For my own part, I prefer to see little boys breaking windows, throwing rocks at each other, and stealing apples while wearing torn and muddied clothes, and I prefer to see little girls climbing elms, pulling hair, and whacking each other with their dolls while they cavort about in sturdy pinafores. I prefer it because this period of imagination, bellicosity, and a kind of lovely, cockeyed poetry is utterly essential to the child’s development into a creative and wellbalanced adult.

Thus, I am pleased with my son. I asked him the other day, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

He looked up at me with freckled face and slightly impish eyes and said, “I don’t want to grow up.”

“Why not?”

“Bills, bills, bills,” said Mike, stretching on the divan and bicycling upside down with his feet in the air.

“There are lots of rich adults.”

“They have ulcers,” Mike countered. “I want to stay nine, maybe ten. At ten you still don’t care about girls. Eleven, twelve, you know you’re going to have to. Right now I like eating, sleeping, reading, and playing baseball and hockey. When a fellow gets old enough to like girls, he’s sunk.”

I cleared my throat. “The relationship between men and women can be a very fruitful and rewarding one. It can enrich and instruct.”

“You don’t need to talk so loud,” Mike said. “Mummy went to her bridge club and told me to tell you there is cold salmon and some old avocado in the refrigerator.”

I laughed hollowly. “Your mother and I would have missed much that is entrancing and elevating had we never met.”

Mike stopped bicycling. He sat up and began rowing a nonexistent boat. He said, “I’ve been around here nine years. You have to do better than that. Anyway, I see what yon don’t see, all around me. I see kids, eight, nine, ten, having some fun, maybe. Not caring a hoot about China or Russia. Then they rot away, like. They get all dressed up and start taking girls to movies and dances, and the fun is all gone. They start talking about economics and segregation instead of Mantle and Maris. They’re done. They have no time for the best things in life.”

“What are the best things in life?” I inquired pointedly, feeling ground slipping from under me.

Mike grinned. “Whatever you don’t have to do.”

“The boys you speak of as rotting possibly do not have to forsake baseball for girls.”

“Are you kidding? Their parents say, ‘Albert, you ask that pretty Calkins girl to dance. You hear? You take her to a movie.’ Albert’s got to do it, and he sweats.”

“Surely you must see some advantage in being a grown-up.”

Mike nodded. “Sure. You can push kids around. They ask you a question, and you say, ‘Shut up. Don’t bother me. You’re too young.’ A kid will ask, maybe, ‘Where do babies come from?’ The grown-up will say, ‘I had a hard day at the office. Ask your mother.’ The mother will say, ‘I had a hard day doing the wash. Babies grow like apple trees do, from seeds.’ Nobody asked her about apple trees.”

I tapped nervously on the chair. Mike turned over on his stomach and was swimming past imaginary sharks; he took a knife of fantasy from his teeth and hacked away at them.

Mike stopped and spoke again. “A grown-up can make a kid do all the dirty work— Get my pipe. Go upstairs and find my book. Run to the store and get me a pound of ground beef and be sure it’s lean. Clean the blackboards. Cut the grass — Phooey! You know why? Because the grown-up is bigger. That’s the only reason.”

Mike went back to his tropical swimming. I spoke firmly. “You have no conception of what being grown-up is because you have never been grown-up.”

“Maybe. But I never see a grownup have any fun. He is always worrying that he’s getting too fat, or that his wife is getting too fat, or he shouldn’t have eaten all that lobster, or he can’t afford to pay his taxes, or something. Anytime I sit down with a grown-up and I try to talk intelligently to him, he is thinking of something else, something he’s worried about. And he always has a pain somewhere. I never met a parent, teacher, or anybody else who was grown-up who didn’t have a pain somewhere. The only time in my life I ever had a pain was when I ate a whole watermelon, and it was worth it. I didn’t go around telling everybody I had a pain. You can’t talk intelligently to a grown-up because he doesn’t know what to talk about. He doesn’t know any mysteries or buried treasures or secret oaths. The best he can do is try to read you a story you read when you were six.”

I felt, to be sure, that Mike was referring to other grown-ups and not his own parents. Still, I wavered a trifle. I asked, “Does this include your own dear father and mother?”

Mike sat up and began flying a space capsule. He chuckled. “Even a grown-up wouldn’t answer a dopey question like that.”

I became firm. “I insist on an honest reply.”

Mike thought a moment. “You two are all right, I guess,”he said, reflectively. “But, then, I don’t figure you’re grown-up.”

“Thanks,” I said, a little sourly. “The cold truth of the matter, my cocky young fellow, is that you will become an adult sooner or later, no matter how you feel.'’

“I guess you’re right,” Mike agreed. He hesitated a while and added, “But I’ll fight it!”

Then he threw his spaceship into automatic control and went happily zooming in a world of his own, free from pains and bills.