The end of innocence

As your child grows older, something precious starts to fade away. One parent reflects on the loss -- and the laughs

“Elmo takes drugs.” This from my son Cormac, who was sitting in the back seat. I was driving him and a friend back from soccer camp.

“What?” I said. “Where did you hear that?”

“It’s true,” his friend said. “Everyone knows it.”

“Something happened to him,” Cormac said.

“He was smoking a cigarette on TV.”

Maybe they were confusing Elmo with a character they’d heard about from Avenue Q, the grown-up Muppet musical.

“Barney was sued,” my son’s friend said.

“He got fired,” my son corrected. “He dropped a kid on his head and he got fired.”

“Then he got sued.”

“But now there’s a new Barney. A new guy in the purple suit.”

“He hasn’t dropped anyone yet.”

Innocence disappears in increments. Elmo went from a favoured character to marketing coup (Tickle Me Elmo) to drug addict. Despite commenting authoritatively on Elmo’s startling decline, my son remains, for the most part, an innocent. At nine, he doesn’t yet have the cynicism of the preteen; he still embraces the world as a naïf.

Innocent is defined in the Random House Dictionary as “free from moral wrong; without sin; pure: innocent children.” The notion of childhood is shorthand for innocence. The adult version is defined in the dictionary as “simpleton or idiot” — at some point in our development, innocence becomes a bad thing. When a child’s innocence goes, so also goes the parent’s last visceral connection to the concept.

When I used to observe my son’s five-year-old face while he was watching a video, I could see the immediate emotional impact of every scene: fear, awe, doubt, joy. His responses weren’t filtered through experience or skepticism. He didn’t see Disney as a cultural vampire. He was just happy that Baloo came along when he did or Mowgli would be toast. And he was just as happy the second time, and the 12th.

My son is my last remaining connection to a virtuous world. When God came down to the Garden of Eden to cross-examine Adam and Eve on why they had forsaken innocence for experience, they didn’t come up with much of an answer. So God left them with a lifetime of labour and the pain of childbirth, not to mention their son Cain, Christianity’s first problem child.

Many millennia later, innocence is still associated with sexuality or, rather, the absence of it. And while innocence isn’t only about sex, it remains a powerful subtext. Sex is a symbol certainly. Once you get that knowledge, like Adam and Eve, you get tossed out of the garden.

I live near a large park, and it’s only recently that my son and his friends roam it at will. It is only now I’ve overcome my not-entirely-rational fears and allowed him to go there unaccompanied. Yet when I was younger than my son, I was almost feral. I left the house in the morning, wandered the forest by the river where we weren’t supposed to go, made forts, played baseball: a Huckleberry Finn existence. It was, as parents often lament, a different time, but perhaps it wasn’t that different.
One day while exploring the riverbank, two friends and I came across a mouldy blanket. Beside it was an empty du Maurier package and two condoms. We were nine years old, brilliantly uninformed, stranded in the two-channel universe of Chez Hélène and The Friendly Giant. Yet even we understood that something had gone on here. Something that was possibly wrong and possibly fun. We guessed that someone’s mother (not ours) had been there, or perhaps a famous actress, doing something we couldn’t define.

Not long after this, on the way home from school, the word SEX was written in chalk in large block letters on the sidewalk. Beneath it the words: “Ask your mom what this means when you get home.” I was afraid to, but my friends did, getting the predictable answer about how there are two different genders.

I can’t pinpoint when the news arrived in its entirety. The most reliable route for anything was through older siblings, but I was the oldest so I had to rely on friends. One day a friend with an older sister drew a line in the dirt with a stick and put three dots along it, a schematic diagram of the female genitalia. “One is for sex,” he said, indicating the first dot, “one is for peeing, and one is for babies. If you pick the wrong one, you’ll kill her instantly.” I carried this fatal-choice theory of sexuality around for a year or so, staring at aunts and waitresses and wondering how they’d managed to survive against such odds: short-sighted men, dark winter nights, misinformed lovers. The miracle of life.

I also wondered why my friend’s older sister was passing on sex information. It seemed odd. We’d used her brassiere as a slingshot; she hated us. One day when I was over there, I confronted her on the subject. She walked over and grabbed me. “I’m going to go to bed with you,” she said, staring into my eyes. It’s difficult to say why this wasn’t necessarily good news. I squirmed out of her arms and ran.

By the age of 12, sex was taking some kind of concrete shape. I used to deliver the Winnipeg Free Press and, once every two weeks, I went around to my customers and collected the money they owed. One afternoon I knocked on a door and a woman opened it. She was in her bathrobe, and beads of perspiration were on her upper lip. A man’s voice called out behind her. “Who is it?” he said. He sounded annoyed.

“It’s the Free Press,” she said. “Collecting.”

When she turned to yell back to him (her husband? someone else’s husband?), her bathrobe opened slightly and her naked breast was exposed. I stopped breathing.

“Oh, ah look, can you come back another time, honey?” she said to me. I nodded, but was unable to move. I stared down at the kitty litter box on the landing. She brushed past me and opened the door to usher me out, and I left without looking up. I walked around my neighbourhood for half an hour, feeling I was on the verge of grasping something profound, some knowledge that had been withheld.

I occasionally overhear my son and his friends talking about sex — twisted versions that I am reluctant to correct. There are other sources now, of course. You don’t need to rely on perverse older siblings; today there is the infinitely perverse Internet, there are hundreds of TV channels. Sex is part of the culture now in a way it wasn’t then; it’s become a commodity.

It is no surprise that sex education now starts in some elementary schools. Still, all of these forces conspire to deliver similarly goofy notions. At the birthday party of one of my son’s friends, a boy told the gang that girls didn’t have penises but wanted them — so they all had to be careful (though he wasn’t the first to voice this theory).

Perhaps it isn’t so much the loss of my son’s innocence that I mourn as I watch it ebb away, but my own connection to it. Each morning, when I open the newspaper to read about political scandals and corporate malfeasance, when I’m confronted by the banal fact that, given the opportunity, so many people behave so badly, my son’s innocence is an oasis, a place to retreat to.

There is the desire to try and prolong this state for as long as possible, coupled with the need to prepare him for the real world. My son needs to be able to protect himself from predators and bullies. Eventually, he’ll have to be equipped to deal with unscrupulous real estate agents, suspect mechanics, and dogma in all its guises. I somehow want him to simultaneously revel in Mowgli’s rescue (and adolescent stirrings) and question Disney’s occasionally creepy hegemony.

Once Cormac’s innocence is gone, the whole concept will revert to a philosophical construct. He wants to shed his innocence, to grow up, to get that (false) freedom he sees in adulthood. I want to preserve innocence because it’s a dwindling, non-renewable commodity, and commensurately precious. This is the eternal paradox.

My son used to hold my hand wherever we went. At some point, he started to let go of it when he saw someone he knew approaching. Then he dropped it when he saw anyone roughly his age approaching. He still occasionally reaches for my hand, a forgotten instinct — but then drops it immediately. All of his worldly knowledge takes him away from me. As early as five, Cormac had a growing, though not completely articulated feeling that I lied on occasion, that my explanations — of blue skies, of why some dogs are big and some are small, of how Saturn got its rings — were suspect. Cormac instinctively knew that, at some point, he would need a second opinion, that his father was fallible. Elmo and Barney are out of his life (and hopefully in rehab) and, at some point, I will be as well. Not completely, of course. I’ll remain with him — lurking as a Freudian shadow forever. But more critically, he’ll be out of mine, attached more to friends than to me and, eventually, leaving.

My son looks like I did at his age, and there are moments when I’m watching him play hockey or soccer that I feel I’m watching a home movie of my own distant childhood. And maybe this is part of it as well; I’m trying to recall my lost innocence, like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane calling out the name of his childhood sled, Rosebud. At some level, we are all trying to get back to the garden.