Sometimes Shading the Truth Is Only Way to Preserve Child's Idealism


The guys behind us were making a lot of noise. It was a midweek day game at Dodger Stadium, and, like my 6-year-old son and I, they were reveling in an afternoon without responsibilities, an afternoon of freedom, of playing hooky from your life. I've always loved weekday baseball for this reason, for the camaraderie it evokes among the faithful, the sense that, for the moment, at least, we're putting something over on the world. And this day was no different; as the game played itself out in subtle increments on the field below us, we ate hot dogs and chatted with the people near us, high-fiving them at every fine play and dishing out good-natured grief whenever we might disagree.

Then, a Dodger Stadium security officer materialized in the aisle beside us and demanded to see the tickets of the men in the back row. Although my son and I had been as loud as they were, he pointedly ignored us--we were white and middle-class; they were Mexican American, in their teens and early 20s with razored haircuts and baggy jeans slung low upon their hips.

"Where's the beer?" the guard asked, once everyone produced a valid ticket. When one man pointed to his cup, the officer shook his head and told him, "No, I mean the beer you brought in." Only after he'd searched their backpacks did he appear satisfied that they had no contraband, and, with a warning to keep the noise down, he headed off to bother someone else.

I was relieved when the guard left, although not for the reasons you might expect. The whole time he was there, I'd felt I should say something, and the longer he stayed, the more I sensed myself contracting inward, as if a weight were pressing on my neck. Yet equally troubling was an opposing pressure, which, as much as anything, kept me quiet in my seat. I wanted the guard to disappear and the situation to be over before my son could ask me what it meant. It's not that I was out to shelter him, exactly, but I couldn't help feeling a burden of preservation, which, as the moment extended, grew inside me with the urgency of a held breath.

Race, you see, is not really part of my son's frame of reference. Sure, he knows about Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson; sure, he understands that discrimination was once institutionalized in the United States. To him, though, that's ancient history, a vestige of some other, dumber era, as ridiculous as a world without TV. Still, sitting in the upper deck at Dodger Stadium, I had to wonder: At what point do you talk to your children about inequity and prejudice--not just as historical or intellectual abstractions but as part of the very fiber of the culture in which we live? I was starting to hope I might not yet need an answer when my son turned to me, and, in a voice marbled by confusion, asked, "Why was he bothering those guys, Dad?"

I didn't know what to say, so I opted for the simplest solution and didn't say much at all. I hemmed and hawed, then sputtered that I wasn't really sure, and we agreed that, whatever the problem, the guard hadn't been very nice. Immediately, I had second thoughts, but they faded as my son began to talk again with the people behind us, as if nothing untoward had occurred. Watching him, I consoled myself that, if nothing else, I'd helped maintain his innocence--for another hour, another week, another year.

It reminded me of a different moment, when he was 4 and I'd first recognized the way reality can catch us unawares. That day, I'd left him in the living room watching television and came back to find him staring at a news report about the crash of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane. For weeks afterward, he asked me about it--we fly often, to visit various grandparents--and only when I assured him repeatedly that we'd never go on anything but a big commercial jetliner did he settle down. Thinking about this earlier incident, I didn't feel so bad about my impulses to protect my son because I knew that one day he, like every one of us, would have to make his own elusive reckoning with the world.

Our experience at the ballpark, however, left something gnawing at me, something that felt unresolved. What I couldn't reconcile was the sense that I'd been, in some way, lying by not telling my son what was going on. This was heightened when, a few weeks later, I told a friend the story and then couldn't explain in any satisfying manner why I'd acted as I had.

It was only later, running things back and forth in my mind, that I could finally see the truth behind the lie. Yes, I had found myself in a sticky situation and I had dodged it, and there was cowardice in that. How, after all, could I explain racism to a 6-year-old when I couldn't explain it to myself?

But at another level, one I'm not sure I was even consciously aware of, all my self-justifying thoughts of preservation were at least partially correct. It wasn't my son's innocence I was protecting, I began to realize, but his idealism, his sense of equality, of fairness, of a world that works. What I wanted to create a space for, in other words, is an attitude he has now but won't always, marked less by how things actually function than by how they should.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw that, in some unfocused fashion, I've been doing something like this all along. Last summer, for instance, my wife and I used the Democratic Convention to teach our son about the miracle of American democracy, even though both of us have long been disillusioned by big-party politics. Even then I'd pretty much made my mind up not to vote for either major candidate, so compromised and uninspired did they seem.

But as I would later do at Dodger Stadium, I choked back my opinions in favor of letting my son see things in a more promising light. For him, it was momentous to the point of solemnity to watch the president on TV, speaking just a few miles down Olympic Boulevard from where we live. When, partway through Clinton's speech, my wife and I began talking, my son shushed us, as if we weren't showing enough respect. It didn't matter that the man for whom my son was sitting silent was someone who had lied and cheated, who had sold out nearly every progressive goal for which he claimed to stand. No, what mattered was my son's sense that he was in the presence of something powerful, a promise, an ideal, an inspiration, some higher purpose to which he might aspire.

I've got friends (none of whom have children) who tell me that I'm crazy, that I'm setting up my son to be let down. You should clue him in, they argue; he should know about the world. But how can I tell him there's no truth, no steadfast beauty, that people hate each other for no good reason, that the powerful care about nothing but their own ends? In his universe, it's the opposite, and who am I to take that away? I know it's a fine line I'm walking, that any minute now his life will become more complex. When this happens, though, I hope he'll remember all the things he once believed. It's an idealistic notion, perhaps a pipe dream, as my friends like to say. But to think otherwise would be cynical, and I'd rather raise an idealist, any day.

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