Grown-ups can have hamsters

“A boxer!” the boy exclaimed.

We were in the car. Tom T. Hall was singing about old dogs and my kid was pointing out the window at the brown boxer on the suburban lawn. The dog sat up high on the too-green grass, almost regal, definitely aloof.

“Can we have a boxer?” he asked.

“No,” I said. I was tired, cranky, and the reason why suburban fathers are presented as the same character on every network sitcom.

“Why?” A common question, and one I love, because at least he realizes–unlike some people I know–that there is generally a rational way at looking most things.

“Because we just got a dog and our house isn’t big enough for two big dogs right now,” I said. It was one breath as I turned out of our neighborhood on the way to school. It’s a good school. I couldn’t ask for a better education for my firstborn. When my exhalation-explanation was finished, I took another hit of aspartame, thought about all I had to do in the next 72 hours, and how the new dog–cute as she is–was certainly going to get in the way.

“What about a hamster?” the boy screamed. It was a revelation to even him. “Can we have a hamster?”

I didn’t say no. I didn’t explain that hamsters don’t live long and that Mom would have a heart attack and stroke to go along with her loss of bladder control if we brought a rodent in the house. I simply continued my role as stereotypical suburban dad and said, “You can have a hamster when you grow up.”

“Will I be grown up when I’m 20?” he asked. “Wait, I know I’ll be grown up when I’m 20. What about when I’m 18 or 19? Is that grown up?”

“Well, some people think…” I started.

I’ll let you imagine the rest of the conversation, because by the end of it, I felt like hamster on a treadmill, working hard, but not really getting anywhere.

I did my best to explain to my kid that some people think you’re grown up when you’re 16. That’s when you’re responsible enough to pilot a half-ton of steel at 70 miles-per-hour down federally-funded roads. But other people think that you’re all grown up when you’re 18, because that’s when you’re responsible enough to vote for your leaders or fight for your country’s freedom (perhaps to my credit, I did not add…”or your country’s corporate financial interests”). And then other people think you have to be 21 to be grown up so you can legally drink a beer, or 25 to be in Congress, or 30 to be in the Senate, or 35 to be President. I didn’t bother saying that there are still some people who believe you are never grown up enough to make responsible decisions about your family, body, or life. The ride to school is only about ten minutes long.

The Some People Think conversation is one we have over and over again in our house. My wife and I tacitly came to an agreement early in my son’s life that we would not force our beliefs on him. Unless we had scientific proof or otherwise irrefutable evidence, we would employ the Some People Think explanation. In the end, we try to explain to him, that people believe a lot of things, and it’s up to every person to decide what he believes on his own. You can imagine how many times and on how many subjects we’ve employed the tactic. And sure, there are times he comes back with, “Well what do you believe?” That one is always harder, both to answer and to be honest.

Last week, my son got in the car and gave me a pretty accurate recounting of World War II, Pearl Harbor, and atomic retaliation on Japan. I told him I was impressed, filled in a few gaps, and helped him remember how to pronounce Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But then he started asking more questions, about why, about how many people died, about war in general. As it often does with a hypercurious kid, the discussion got tough.

“Are we winning the war right now?” he asked.

“Some people think…,” I started. I turned the corner onto Pleasantburg Drive and said, “I don’t know.”

I love my son, in part because he is a rational creature. He knows that for things that matter there is usually a line between points A and B and that to deviate from that line is a waste of time. I think it’s probably easier to be rational when you’re six, because you haven’t learned how mentally time consuming and distracting irrationality can be. You haven’t fallen in love with the idea that there is a gray area between right and wrong, sense and nonsense, or love and hate. A six-year-old can’t comprehend the idea that “Killing is wrong, unless…” or “You should love everybody, unless…” or “They were our friend, until…”

Parenting isn’t easy from the outset. It’s quickly apparent how easy it is to make your children believe whatever you want them to. It makes it much harder when you realize that you don’t have all the answers and that anyone who believes he does know everything is so pathetically wrong that he should be ignored about everything. It’s hard to tell your kid that you simply don’t know. But, I think it might be the right thing to do.

I can explain to my six-year-old son why he can’t have a hamster, but I’ll be damned if I can explain to him how old he’ll be when he’s grown up.