I used to scorn innocence. As a kid, I sensed that adults fetishized naivete in children. I thought that this was because they wanted to be the only ones who got to know how things really worked--the dark and dirty truth of it all. I hated feeling like secrets were being kept from me, "for my own good." I didn't want to be good. Good was boring. Every kid figures this out before long.
Luckily, my parents were rather lazy in their attempts to shelter me from the dark side. Rather than hire a babysitter, they would take me to R-rated movies with a brown paper grocery bag, making me put it on my head during the "inappropriate" scenes--anything with too much sex or violence. They reused the same brown bag over and over, into which I poked pinholes that they never detected, not doubting my innocence. If the gunfire or groaning went on long enough, they'd take it one step further and tell me to wait in the lobby--and I would, happily peering through a crack in the door. I didn't miss a thing, although I often had no idea what I was actually seeing. Why was it such a big deal that Cheech and Chong smoked a bunch of cigarettes and then lazed around eating junk food?
I wasn't the only kid who wanted to shed my innocence as fast as possible. At school, new knowledge was a powerful currency. No one wanted to be left behind with the babies.
At two-and-a-half, Max is still a baby in many respects, although he's quickly on his way to becoming the "big boy" he insists that he already is (even though I insist in return that a big boy does not use diapers). My eagerness to get him out of diapers aside, I find myself predictably, mawkishly sorry to see him outgrowing the vestiges of babyhood. Now that I'm the adult, I have a new appreciation for innocence, and a new understanding for why adults try to preserve it in children as long as possible. As a kid, I thought innocent was a synonym for stupid. Now I realize that it's also a synonym for sweet, that sweetness is not boring, and that niceness is underrated.
Up until recently, Max refused to express a preference for one kid in his class over another, or for one teacher over another. In his innocence, he was affectionate and loyal to everyone in his life. But suddenly he has a favorite teacher, and he "only" likes her. He's testing the new power of declaring which kids are "not my friend," which kids are "babies" (in contrast to his big macho self). And he informed us that he in turn "bothers" a little girl. "I bother her," he said woefully, clearly repeating words she'd told him, since I have somehow managed to hold back, upon the numerous occasions that he has "bothered" me, from declaring it outright. She happens to be his "enamorado," the girl he loves. Already, an unrequited romance, and he's not yet three. What heartbreak lies ahead!
I spend a lot of time reading fiction that is all about the complexity of the human character and relationships, admiring authors who manage to represent these tangled webs on the page, trying to do the same in my own work. And while I wouldn't want Max to stay naive eternally (or in diapers, for that matter) I am a little surprised by how sorry I feel to see him getting more complex, so fast.
Earlier this week, for the first time, he was strewn in colorful beaded necklaces when he suddenly took them off and informed me, "Necklaces are for girls!" with palpable scorn. This came as a shock, given that when I show up at the end of the day at preschool, the little boys in his class are as likely to be stuffed into leotards and tutus as fireman costumes. Fair's fair, I guess. Clearly he's passing on some new piece of knowledge about gender distinctions, gleaned by another kid seeking to disabuse the lot of them of their innocence.
"This is my gunk," he said yesterday, pointing a baby carrot at me. He'd been home with me all day recovering from tongue surgery, it was late afternoon and he was restless and irritable, as was I.
"Your what?" I said.
"My GUNK," he repeated, making an unmistakable "bang bang" sound.
I laughed at the mistake, even as I cringed at his acquisition of yet another unfortunate new piece of information, this being the first time he'd ever mentioned--let alone pretended to play with--a weapon. He seemed annoyed by my reaction, more so when I lunged forward and took a bite. He burst into tears, telling me to "Put it back!" Then, like a baby, he let me comfort him, even though I'd been the one to eat his gunk.