August 02, 2004

Spoiled Fairy Tales

For each person, there is one defining moment in which they realize that they have almost nothing in common with today's youth. For me, that day came on Friday.

Melissa and her friend, Frances, were going out to the movies, and I (was) volunteered to babysit the kids. My son, Matthew, is 2 1/2, and Frances brought Marvin (also 2 1/2) and Sarah, who was nine. They took off to diner and the movie, while I ordered a pizza for the masses. I felt like an idiot having the place deliver one large pizza, since the place was only a 3/4 of a mile up the road, but I couldn't pack them all in the car for such a short trip. It arrived 15 minutes later and I gave the boy a full tip, all the same.

The little ones ate half of their pizza and went into the next room to watch a "Wiggles" tape, leaving Sarah and me to talk as we finished up. She was a very observant girl, at that precarious age that grants children enough intelligence to think for themselves, but not enough wisdom yet to make good decisions. It's this sudden realization of intelligence that makes them despise their parents for telling them what to do. Well, that and the slow-simmering frustration when the parents end up being right.

One of the earliest lessons that new parents learn is that children rarely play with toys as they are intended. The commercials suggest mind-expanding activities and structured playtime, complete with storytelling elements, but the reality is quite different. For example, we bought a musical block set for Matthew. The idea is that he'd put the multi-colored blocks in different slots of the base and make all kinds of music. In reality, he just stacks the blocks in a tower, says "oh NO!" and knocks them all down. Matthew really likes that sort of thing. He's like "Stitch" from the Disney movie, building San Francisco and destroying it Godzilla-style.

True to form, Matthew emptied the two sets of "Baby Einstein" flash cards that we bought him onto the floor and scattered them around. He backed up, got a running start, and ran full-steam over the patch of laminated cards, effectively making the carpet into one large "Slip & Slide." To our dismay, this game never gets old with him. He might occasionally turn up a card under his shoe and correctly identify a picture of a cow, but they're mostly used as a wipeout track.

It was a chore putting the two year-olds to bed, since they had different bedtimes, and Marvin didn't have his stuffed lobster. Without it, he just ran around in the spare bedroom sobbing and sounding like a mitre saw attempting to cut through a Buick. When their cries settled down to the defeated whimpers of bedtime acceptance, Sarah asked to watch our DVD of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

I had loved this movie since I was a child, and I was pleased that she liked it as well. Thirty seconds before each plot point, she told me what was going to happen next, and I played along, seeming to be surprised. Seeing this film through her eyes filled me with parental joy that only a child's perspective can give. But it didn't last.

As the characters all entered The Chocolate Room where "everything is eat-able", she marveled at it, saying "Wow, if I had a place like that, I'd do nothing but eat candy for the rest of my life!" I grinned, having thought the same thing when I was young. Then Sarah added "But it would have to be low-carb."

Poof. Happy nostalgia, gone. I didn't know what a carb was until I was at least 17, and then it was only because I got bored and read the nutritional information panel on a can of Coke. I didn't know to limit them until I was 26. But Sarah, aged only nine years, dreams of a chocolate paradise with a dietary disclaimer.

This simple statement brought the wide swath of time between us to light. The world had changed since I was young. Even the shared experience of a classic children's film was viewed so differently by her that it destroyed the illusion. I am only 30, but I felt every year of difference between us like weights on my shoulder.

At the end of the movie, Sarah said "I think this movie was made, like, a REALLY long time ago."

"Yes, it was," I replied.

"Like, 1990 or something."

I winced, and went to check the box. "No, it was made in 1971. That's even before *I* was born," I said. "WOW," came her reply.

We played cards until her mother came to pick them up.

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