(Jeff Jacoby writes an annual column in the form of a letter to his son, Caleb.)
My beloved Caleb,
You gave me a real jolt a few nights ago. You had just gotten into bed for the night, and I was sitting with you so we could talk for a few minutes before saying good-night.
"Papa," you announced, "I will get a gun."
I couldn't have been more startled if your head had spun 360 degrees. Not that I am a gun-hater -- on the contrary, I think that in the hands of honest people, guns do more good than harm. But it's one thing to understand that intellectually, and something very different to hear "I will get a gun" come out of the mouth of a child who is just turning 3. Especially when the papers are reporting a horrible story: In Michigan, a first-grade boy has shot and killed a first-grade girl. A gun! Who could have put such an idea in your head?
And then I remembered. I did.
Only the night before, I had been reading to you from your collection of Beatrix Potter stories. Since Mama had already read from it at length, I looked for a story that you hadn't yet heard. What I picked was "The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit." As plots go, this one was pretty simple: a fierce rabbit, a gentle rabbit, a stolen carrot, a squabble. Then I read these words:
"This is a man with a gun. He sees something sitting on a bench." (It was the bad rabbit.) "He thinks it is a very funny bird! He comes creeping up behind the trees. And then he shoots -- BANG!" The bad rabbit loses everything -- tail, whiskers, stolen carrot. The good rabbit comes out of hiding. End of story.
At the time, you seemed to be paying attention only to the rabbits. But the gun in the story evidently made more of an impression than I'd realized. So once I got over my shock the other night, I told you that farmers sometimes use guns to shield good animals from bad animals. In any case, I said, guns were not for little boys. You were satisfied with that, and haven't mentioned guns since. But it was yet another reminder: Far less escapes you than I might imagine.
Like every parent, Caleb, I want to keep you safe from harm -- but I also want you to learn as much as you can for yourself. More and more in your first three years I have come to understand that looking after your well-being is a balancing act. You need to be protected. But not overprotected.
When it comes to physical danger, the balance isn't usually too hard to strike. Yes, you may run on the sidewalk; no, you may not go into the street. You want to pull your mittens off when there are 8 inches of snow on the ground? Go ahead; you'll quickly see why I wanted you to wear them. You want to stand up in the car while it's moving? Don't even think about it.
But not every risk is physical. There are also risks to mind and spirit. Now that you are 3 and able to make sense of so much more of the world, I am more aware than ever of all the unsettling messages orbiting out there, competing for your attention.
Even at this age, many of those messages are in books. For the most part, your storybooks are charming. Mama and I are delighted at the way you've taken to Curious George, who always learns the hard way that being too curious can cause trouble. I like reading "Beauty and the Beast" to you because it teaches a timeless lesson: What is truly beautiful in a human being is not what you see on the surface.
On the other hand, not everything in your books -- you do have a lot of them! -- is so appealing. Remember when your grandparents came to visit in January, and you asked Saba to read you "Snow White"? He was only too happy to oblige, but when he came to the passage in which the queen commands that Snow White be killed and her heart torn out, he looked up in surprise. "This is a children's book?"
We laughed, but it wasn't a bad question. There is a good deal of cruelty in this world. There are people who scruple at nothing, not even the murder of children. When Saba himself was not much more than a boy, his life was permanently scarred by the cruelty of just such people. How much of this do I want you to know? How much of it do I want you to know now?
There is no easy answer, and no two parents will agree exactly. Certainly children's stories have often been filled with grisly dangers and bloody villains. To judge from their fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm were aptly named. Life can be hard, and it always ends in death; even children have to learn that their days are limited. Yet who wants to load a child with fears and unease? I want you to grow up optimistic and happy, not easily alarmed or plagued by worry.
Thus the balancing act goes on.
The older you grow, Caleb, the faster and thicker the messages will come at you. Soon you will be in school. Your circle of friends will expand. You will learn to read on your own. You will be exposed to things -- like TV -- that you aren't exposed to at home. You will be bombarded by ideas and values and temptations of every description. My profoundest wish for you -- and for me -- is that you will learn to choose among them well.
I never forget that the character of the man you will be tomorrow depends in great part on the kind of father I am today. I thought that was a huge responsibility when you were an infant. Now that you are a boy, with a mind and will of your own, I am beginning to grasp how huge it really is.
All my love
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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