The Magazine

The Kindergarchy

Every child a dauphin.

Jun 9, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 37 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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When I was a boy my parents might go off to New York or to Montreal (my father was born in Canada) for a week or so and leave my brother and me in the care of a woman in the neighborhood, a spinster named Charlotte Smucker--Mrs. Smucker to us--who was a professional childsitter. Sometimes an aunt, my mother's sister who had no children, would stay with us. We seldom went on vacation as a family. When I was eight years old, my parents sent me off for an eight-week summer camp session in Eagle River, Wisconsin, where I learned all the dirty words if not their precise meanings. None of these things made me unhappy or in any way dampened my spirits. I cannot recall ever thinking of myself as an unhappy kid.

My mother never read to me, and my father took me to no ballgames, though we did go to Golden Gloves fights a few times. When I began my modest athletic career, my parents never came to any of my games, and I should have been embarrassed had they done so. My parents never met any of my girlfriends in high school. No photographic or video record exists of my uneven progress through early life. My father never explained about the birds and the bees to me; his entire advice on sex, as I clearly remember, was, "You want to be careful."

I don't recall many stretches of boredom in my boyhood. Life was lived among friends on the block and, later, during games on the playground. Winter afternoons after school were filled up by "Jack Armstrong," "Captain Midnight," and other radio programs for kids. Boredom, really, wasn't an option. I recall only once telling my mother that I was bored. "Oh," she said, a furtive smile on her lips, "why don't you bang your head against the wall. That'll take your mind off your boredom." I never mentioned boredom again.

After the age of ten, I made every decision about my education on my own. The one I didn't make, at ten, was to go to Hebrew school in order to be bar-mitzvahed; this was a decision made for me and was nonnegotiable. But my parents felt no need to advise me on what foreign language to take in high school, where I ought to go to college--though my father paid every penny of my tuition and expenses--or what I ought to study once there. That I was a thoroughly mediocre student seemed not much to bother them. Neither of my parents had gone to college, and my father never finished high school, moving to the United States and going off on his own at 17, and so they did not put great value in doing well at school.

At roughly the age of 11, I had the run of the city of Chicago, taking buses, streetcars, or the El with friends to Wrigley Field, downtown, or to nearby neighborhoods for Saturday afternoon movies. Beginning at 15, the age when driver's licenses were then issued in Chicago, I had frequent use of my mother's cream-and-green Chevy Bel-Air, which greatly expanded my freedom. I don't recall either of my parents asking me where I had been, or with whom, even when I came in at early morning hours on the weekends.

When we were together, at family meals and at other times, we laughed a lot, my parents, my brother, and I, but we did not openly exhibit exuberant affection for one another. We did not hug, and I do not remember often kissing my mother or her kissing me. Neither my mother nor my father ever told me they loved me; nor did I tell them that I loved them. I always assumed their love, and, as later years would prove, when they came to my aid in small crises, I was not wrong to do so.

I did not seek my parents' approval. All I wished was to avoid their--and particularly my father's--disapproval, which would have cut into my freedom. Avoiding disapproval meant staying out of trouble, which for the most part I was able to do. Punishment would have meant losing the use of my mother's car, or having my allowance reduced, or being made to stay home on school or weekend nights, and I cannot remember any of these things ever happening, a testament less to my adolescent virtue than to the generous slack my parents cut me.

The older I become the more grateful I am to my parents for staying off my case. Yet they were not unusual in this. Most of the parents of my contemporaries acted much the same, which is why very little anger or animus on the part of my friends against their parents was in evidence. Some parents were more generous to their kids than others, a few mothers showed anxiety about their sons and daughters, but no parents that I knew of seemed oppressive enough to give cause for feelings of revolt on the part of their children. Free and almost wildly uncontrolled though it may seem today, my upbringing was quite normal for middle-class boys of my generation.