So our son started reading The Hunger Games a few days ago. After some pretty heavy lobbying on his part, his Mom and I gave our approval. He'd just finished his fifth or sixth Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. No signs of injury from the whiplash effect.
There's no manual to let parents know when their kids are ready for stuff like this. For better or for worse, the primary barometer we used was simply what other kids his age were doing. It's funny how quickly that barometer can change. Last year I proctored a non-EOG test for a fourth-grade class at my son's school; and when the kids finished nearly all of them, in one fluid motion, put their pencils down and reached into their desk to pull out some permutation of the Suzanne Collins series. Standing at the front of the classroom, it was like looking at a huge mosaic of Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay book covers. I watched in fascination and thought, wow, how cool they're reading some thought-provoking stuff there. Some day my son will be ready for that. Some day.
That was April. This is August. Four short months. And suddenly my son is in the fourth grade.
Sure, it's pretty heavy material, beyond just the violence. Trying to digest the rudiments of a dystopian society, an unjust world with little redemption, and a ruthless dictator takes a certain level of sophistication. But I'd rather have my son deal with these issues in the context of a good fictional book; and with me and his mother ready to engage him in conversation and open discussion (which, if you know my son, is certainly forthcoming).
And yeah, I know, it's just the beginning. The taboo book was merely a launching pad into a slew of pre-adolescent rites of passage. Already he's asked about Facebook and a cell phone. My wife and I are discussing the parameters for an allowance. Again, no manual. Parents are left to their own devices to feel their way through all of this - a parental rite of passage of its own, I'm quickly learning.
It's just so surreal, how fast it's all happening. And the reminders extend beyond my own flesh and blood. Last night we were enjoying a lazy evening at the swimming pool and I went to get a snack. I rounded the clubhouse and came upon one of my son's classmates; a cool kid with a bubbly personality who always makes me smile. Except she wasn't standing there in flip-flops sucking on a freeze pop with a Mickey Mouse towel draped over her shoulders, like she was just yesterday. Or maybe that was three years ago. No, there she was, driving a golf cart, decked out in spiked shoes and collared shirt. Presumably taking a soda to her father on the back nine, but still.
Every now and then I have this recurring daydream. It's one where my sons and I sit around the TV on a Sunday afternoon and digest the Panthers pass protection and talk about how many years Cam Newton has left. Or we check out the latest super hero movie - Avengers 6, we'll call it - and laugh at how it was just like all the others. Or the four of us feel the collective surge of adrenaline in the arena at a U2 or Green Day or Switchfoot concert. Or my wife and I suffer through six agonizing summer days without as much as a text or phone call from the boys as they relish in their newfound independence with the youth group at a week-long Montreat Youth Conference. Or brochures for institutions of higher education start showing up in our mailbox, and they're not addressed to me.
It all seems so incredibly far off, until I realize: it's so much closer than I could possibly imagine.
Sweet Jesus, what I'd give for that manual.