When I was young and had my whole life in front of me I wanted nothing more than to be older. To have less life in front of me. I had time to burn and a box of matches. But this was the seventies, the pre-information age, so my longing for the years to pass was based only on my desire to be a grown up, to know things, to be able to make decisions and do stuff without asking. Grown-ups knew it all.
My oldest son is fourteen but wants to be older, eighteen to be precise, not nineteen and God forbid twenty one, twenty one is old, and old is for old people. What he doesn’t realise though is, compared to me at his age, he is already forty.
When I was a kid if I wanted to know something I had to get on a bus, go into town, walk to the library, find it in a book, write it down, go home, realise there was something else I needed to know, repeat. Who does that? My idea of Googling something was poking the insides of a dead rabbit with a stick or realising that freshly picked carrots were covered in mud, I got my sex education from Monty Python.
Innocence is nothing more than a lack of information, we keep our children innocent by withholding the truth, by maintaining the fiction, the lie. I believed in Father Christmas until I was fifteen, my eight year old son however knows there’s no such thing and had seen through the terrifying madness of the tooth fairy by the time he was five. He still pretends to believe in them though, not because he thinks the presents and coins might stop, he knows they won’t, but because it makes his mother and father happy. We want to think of him as our little boy for as long as possible.
Parents are now an unreliable source of intelligence, back in my youth age was considered to be wisdom, now it’s the opposite, the older you are the less likely you are to know the answer. Having said that my Dad wasn’t exactly a paragon of veracity, for years I believed that Doodlebugs were Jew seeking, that Oranges were so called because they were orange and that old pipes were made of lead to poison tiny snakes in the water supply. I had no reason to doubt my father, he didn’t tell me much so when he did I listened, I wanted to learn from him, to be like him. My older boys don’t really have that ambition and the style of my general knowledge is not dissimilar to my father’s so it’s understandable that when they want to know something definitive they ask Google or Alexa. I’m not the last person they turn to however, that would be Siri, though they do sometimes like to embarrass him by asking about peanuts for China.
The answers they get from these simulacrum carry no mystery, they are not subjective, conditional or in jest and are most likely accurate and pertinent. The young carry the burden of knowledge lightly because they carry so much of it. They don’t care that information erodes innocence, they don’t worry about it, that is the job of the parents but parents rarely appreciate what innocence is. We think it is a natural state, a blissful state, that it has to be protected at all costs, we think swearing is dangerous, that depictions of violence beget violence and most typically we confuse innocence with sex.
Of course we have to keep our children safe but the idea that we can control how quickly they grow up is laughable, tell a teenage mother that ignorance is bliss. Like everything else sex is just information, often information we would rather our children didn’t have, we associate exposure to it with predation, with violation, with being thrown out of the garden. Our response as parents can be to further restrict access, to fear the internet, the perilous undertow but it is the ocean our children swim in. They are glittering fish while we stand on the shore with our fishing rods and keep nets. I resist my urge to intervene because I have to trust my sons not to swim in treacherous waters.
I don’t want my three boys to be men any day soon, I will miss my children but there is nothing I can do about it. My middle son understands and only wants the best for me, he is kind and patient and teaches me Fortnite.