Wednesday night after the trick-or-treating was through, Jay and I sat down on the kitchen floor and spread his haul between us. His tiger costume lay in a heap beside him and his head slumped on his shoulders, tired. But as he ran his hand through his small mountain of candy there was a gleam in his eyes that suggested a thought: How is such a night even possible?
I realized that to Jay the candy laid out before him was alluring but mysterious so I decided to fill him in. He picked up one piece at a time and I named it for him: Starbursts, M&Ms, Jolly Ranchers, Sweet Tarts, Nestle Crunch.
And as I named them I editorialized. A starlight mint? Junk, I told him. A bag of gummies? Boring, I said dismissively, tossing it back onto the pile. Almond Joy? Eeew. A box of Milk Duds? Now that’s a real get, I exclaimed breathlessly.
As we named and evaluated, I was conscious of how with each comment I was shaping Jay’s early relationship with candy, passing on my tastes and preferences, honed over years of obsession with sweet things, but still, ultimately, arbitrary. I wondered if it was fair or wise to bias him against coconut confections before he’d even tried one, or to preload his first experience of Milk Duds with my own enthusiasm for chocolate covered caramels?
There are many areas in which I’m happy to influence Jay. I don’t mind teaching him to look both ways before he crosses the street and I don’t mind teaching him to be kind to his brother or to say thank you when he’s given something.
When it comes to safety or morals or social norms, it’s clearly better to guide than to leave kids to figure things out on their own.
But when it comes to matters of taste I always feel more heavy-handed, and I wonder if by expressing my own preferences I’m short-circuiting Jay’s rightful exploration of the world.
After we finished with the candy we went upstairs and I asked Jay to pick out two books to read before bed. I hoped, as I do every night, that he might pick one of the great stories on his shelves: The Lorax, One Morning in Maine, Owl Moon. But instead, as he often does, he picked a large hardcover on trucks and a board book in which the New York Yankees go through the ABC’s. (I hope my friend Eric is not reading this post; I wouldn’t want him to know how effectively he infiltrated our Red Sox-nation household with the gift of that book.)
Jay handed me the book on trucks but instead of opening it I said, “Wouldn’t you rather read Time of Wonder?” As I reached for Robert McCloskey’s lyrical, beautifully water-colored children’s book about life on the Maine coast, I felt a little guilty: Was I teaching Jay that his choices don’t matter? Was I selfishly prioritizing my own desire not to spend the next fifteen minutes naming different types of construction equipment? And, most worrisome of all, if I insisted on Time of Wonder, would my tyranny of taste have the unintended long-term effect of turning Jay off to reading altogether?
But Jay is not a delicate bird. He started to whine as soon as I mentioned Time of Wonder and then he tried to pull the book from my hands. As it turned out, he was even more committed to his preference than I was to mine, so after a minute we settled in and let Derek Jeter tell us about all the things that start with the letter “J.”
And indeed, Jay’s tastes are probably less moldable than I think. Some times I wish he were more open to my influence while others I’m happy not to feel responsibility for his choices. Yesterday after lunch, for example, he was allowed to choose a piece of candy for dessert. After many minutes sifting through his bag he settled, finally and inexplicably, on a long, skinny Tootsie Roll. As he sat down to eat it, I felt unburdened to be able to think: That, my friend, is on you.