(Jeff Jacoby writes an annual column in the form of a letter to his son Caleb.)
My beloved Caleb,
One already?! Where did the year go? Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that you were a frail, cross-eyed thing, so scrawny that even newborn-size diapers were too big for you? Wasn't it just the other day that you surprised yourself by rolling over, then spent hours trying to figure out how to roll back? Now look at you! Zipping along on your hands and knees, jabbering and yammering as you chase the cat across the dining room floor.
You've changed so much, so fast. The milestones have rushed by -- first smile, first tears, first time you sat up, first time you pulled yourself to your feet. Every advance delights me, but the delight is bittersweet. For each new phase you enter marks another phase I must leave behind. Once you could kick off your blanket, you no longer needed me to swaddle you at bedtime. Once you were big enough for the tub, baths in the kitchen sink came to an end. Now you're starting to toddle, and it exhilarates me to see you take your first steps unaided. But it saddens me a bit, too: Soon my little speed-crawler will only be a memory.
You're not the only one who is changing, Caleb. I now understand -- or am beginning to understand -- the joy with which unpleasant tasks can be performed when they are performed out of love. Before you were born, your Aunt Sharon used to smirk that she couldn't wait to see her notoriously squeamish big brother handle a loaded diaper. She should see me now. I may wrinkle my nose and declaim, "Phew!" but taking care of even your messy needs makes me happy, because they are your needs, and you are my greatest joy.
You are also my greatest responsibility. Not only am I obliged to clean and feed you, I am obliged to teach you and raise you. The kind of man you become tomorrow depends on the kind of father I am today. "Train up a child in the way he shall go," King Solomon wrote in the Book of Proverbs, "and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Ultimately, only you can shape your own character. But I can try to give you the tools you will need to shape it well: Self-discipline. Strong virtues. A serious education. A good example.
How solemn this all must sound! At the moment your days are filled with bottles and naps and finding things to climb on and wondering what everything tastes like. (And pestering the cat.) Yet your mother and I know there is no time to lose. If we want you to wind up decent and honorable, the time to work on it is now.
Which is why it probably seems to you that the words you hear from us most often are "No!" and "Don't!" Don't pull on the plants. Don't splatter your food. Don't grab Mama's files. You don't speak yet, and it's hard to tell if you have figured out the meaning of those words, or just the meaning of those words delivered in a certain tone of voice.
Either way, plan on getting to know them extremely well. No and Don't are the very cornerstones of civilization, Caleb. "Don't splatter your food" may not seem important, but it is only a first step. Later comes "Don't hit" and "Don't lie." And before long, "You shall not murder." "You shall not steal." "You shall not bear false witness."
If we fail to build No and Don't into your character, if we fail to teach you that some things are wrong and you must not do them no matter how urgently you want to, we will have failed you. You may not take anything you want, do anything you want, say anything you want -- and the sooner you know it, the better you will be. As you grow older, my charming young son, people even more charming than you will try to undermine your convictions. Just try it once, they'll say. Nobody will know, they'll say. You'll really like it, they'll say.
You can't imagine the temptations that lie ahead, Caleb, or all the wrong things you will want to do. Take it from your father, who has done many wrong things in his life. It isn't easy to be good. But it is easier if you are equipped with No and Don't.
Your first year, so full of new experiences for us both, isn't going to stay with you. Who recalls being nursed? Or being weaned? You'll never recollect saying your first word, even as I'll never forget it. (How about saying it, already?) By the same token, we are weaving rituals and customs into your life now so that you will grow up never knowing a time without them.
You will grow up having put money into the charity box since before you can remember. And since before you can remember, we will have been flying the flag on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.
Every Friday night, you will have seen the Sabbath candles lit, their glow as familiar to you as your own name. And every Friday night your father will have blessed you, murmuring words more than 3,000 years old:
"May the Lord bless you and keep you.
"May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
"May the Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace."
Now you squirm when you are blessed. But one day you will explain to your own squirming children that you bless them because your father blessed you, and that he blessed you because his father blessed him. You are a new link in an old, old chain, Caleb. There is so much I look forward to sharing with you.
Your first year, with all its miracles, came and went so quickly. The second one is already whizzing by. Won't be long before you can catch that cat.
All my love,
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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