The boy likes to gorge on fish tacos, stuffed hot dogs from 7-Eleven and Butterfinger candy bars. The boy likes to play "The Pink Panther" and "Red River Valley" on the piano until someone pleads for mercy. The boy thought Willem Dafoe should have won an Oscar for his portrayal of Max Schreck in "Shadow of the Vampire." Not only that, the boy now skulks around the house as Max Schreck, slinking toward his sisters' necks until they bat him away, unimpressed. The boy also adores Christopher Walken and has taught his 2-year-old sister to say, "Wowie, wow, wow, wow!" after Walken's "Saturday Night Live" character, "The Continental."
The boy is 12. He's a kid. So who knew I would be venturing so soon into the shadowy world of Celebrity Sex, Free Fuck Theatre and the tasteful BigBoobs.com? With the catchy phrase "Just click on and jack off," there is a picture on the site of a woman attempting to hold two penises at once -- and not with her hands. I don't want to muzzle the boy, to quash his basic freedoms, but I still long to protect him from the image of a woman vacantly licking a penis (or two) like it's an ice-cream cone.
I know it comes with the territory of the teen years. I can recall my own brothers jamming pennies in the cable box, way back when, in hopes of glimpsing some skin on the Playboy Channel. I just never expected to be thrust so forcefully into the land of adult fireside theater on the Web.
But I'm stupid. I never put restrictions on his AOL account because he always hurled logic at me like "I need to look up biology facts or Chinese history. I need to find information about scary movies and Max Schreck. I can't do that if I have parental restrictions. It won't let you go anywhere!" And since this kid was pretty much a straight-A student for years with great rapport with his teachers, I decided to allow him to use the Web for his research -- on the family computer in my home office. Fool, thy name is mother. Yet, let me retrace the steps that led us to the X-rated hearth.
For the first few months of seventh grade, the boy arrived home each day armed with a stack of homework. Whether it was statistics or current events or a biology project, the boy, without too much ado, seemed to get his work done in the quiet of his room.
But around November, the boy suddenly experienced a precipitous drop in time spent on homework. Distracted by his two sisters and my own work, I thought he was simply settling into the routine of seventh grade and using his time more wisely. Ha. Hahahahahahaha. By the middle of November, he had no homework at all -- or so the tale went. He slogged in every day, slung his backpack in a place where someone would most likely break a limb over it, headed to the kitchen to eat anything not nailed down and said, "No homework. Going to Pete's to play Roller Coaster Tycoon."
Roller Coaster Tycoon is a computer game in which the players build roller coasters, and the boy was obsessed with it. If possible, he would have beamed himself to Pete's each day before I began the third degree, which went something like this: "How can you not have any homework? You had tons of homework last year at this school."
"I don't know. It's really weird."
"But you must know. What's going on? No assignments? At all?"
"I finished them in class."
"And the teachers gave you no other work to do? Nothing?"
"Mom, I really don't understand it myself." (Yes, he is now lying to my face, but the puzzled look on his face throws me, as if he is as truly befuddled by it all as I.)
I try again. "Has there been some new philosophy implemented about less homework?"
"The teachers do give extra credit, but it really doesn't count. If you get A's on the test, why bother with extra credit?"
"But you're not exactly getting A's."
"Oh, I will. I plan to. I've gotten some A's. Don't worry. Maybe the teachers just want kids to have a life, so they don't give out as much homework this year."
What a smooth operator. As I write this, I think, "Could I have been a bigger idiot?" But there were no calls or letters from the powers that be to suggest trouble might be brewing. And then one night, the boy mumbled quite casually, "By the way, I have a quiz in biology tomorrow." A minute later, he revised his statement and said, "Hey, you know, it's not really a quiz. It's more of a test." Two minutes after that, he upgraded his statement once again. "Actually, it's an exam."
After his dismal performance on the "exam," the real day of reckoning came about a week later when I received a call from a mother who said, "Oh, I'll see you at Open House today." Open House. First I'd heard tell of it.
That afternoon when the boy slouched through the door with his "No homework" song and dance, I cut him off and said, "It's Open House. We're going to meet your teachers, and figure out why you haven't had any homework this last month."
The boy blanched and swallowed hard. Wowie, wow, wow, wow! You could feel his little seventh-grade brain lurching about for an escape clause. As I snapped his baby sister into her car seat, he grunted, "Ah hey, you know, I'm not really sure about history. I mean, I'm not really sure about my grade in history."
"Oh, really? You mean you're getting a C?" This was a kid who had loved history the year before. There was a silence that told everything. It was evident that the boy was hoping for at least a C, but even that didn't look very promising.
I gleaned much at Open House, including the fact that -- surprise -- his teachers had not ceased assigning homework. His biology teacher said, "Oh, here are 200 points your son missed from not turning work in." His math teacher said, "Hmm. He started talking to Eddie and math went out the window. He missed eight assignments at least." His history teacher said, "He's a great kid. He's just been on Mars lately." All in all, the boy didn't fail anything, but he did get his worst grade ever -- a D in history.
After several days and rounds of tears, arguments and outrage over the lies and disrespect for everyone involved, I finally took a deep breath and said, "OK, this isn't a 'getting mad question.' This is just a 'What were you thinking?' question. What were you thinking when you walked in here every day for a month and lied to us? To your father? To your sister who sat at the table doing hours of homework?"
There was a pause and then: "I wanted to see what I could get away with."
It was the first honest answer I'd had in months. Of course, I made him make it all up -- every single assignment and every scrap of extra credit. I became the cruel taskmaster and heavy. I took away the Magic Mountain trip with his uncles. I confiscated Roller Coaster Tycoon and Nintendo. Those time suckers were out of the house, banished to the trunk of the car.
I informed him that bankruptcy did not happen in this family -- no slates wiped clean. He would have to turn in all his homework, whether he got credit or not -- and frankly he didn't deserve credit because of all the other kids who had turned their work in on time. He spent Christmas break catching up by doing two hours of homework a day.
After the vacation, he handed in all his assignments and endured daily backpack checks. He even seemed relieved that it was all out in the open. I was proud of him for getting his act together, but I still wanted to know what might have caused him to go so far off track. I would come to find out in late January.
One night, I was working downstairs when one of his friends called. The boy went upstairs and left the telephone off the hook. So I shamelessly eavesdropped, looking for clues to avoid another disastrous semester, and I heard him mumble, "So, Sam, did you jack off during history class?" The two shared a guffaw as I tried to catch my breath.
Later, I confronted him and said, "Maybe the reason your grades were so lousy was because you were jacking off during history?"
"No, I never! That's code! Code," he squealed.
"Good," I sputtered, managing to utter the parentally correct mantra, "because jacking off is something that is totally normal. But it belongs in the privacy of your room, not history class."
"I know that. Jeez, don't you think I know that?"
The next day, still reeling, I went online to check his e-mail and Web site history. I just had a hunch. Was it wrong? Was I crossing the line and invading his privacy? If he were 16 or 18, yes, but he was 12. I saw no other choice. I had to know what was going on with him. He had lied so easily about homework.
His e-mails were nothing special -- the classic stuff of seventh graders, like forwarded tips on how to find a girlfriend/boyfriend; an electronic chain letter guaranteeing cash; one that said only, "Wassssssup?" Then I checked the Web sites. Mostly, they were about science, Max Schreck, Africa, mask making. And then I saw them: Free Fuck Theatre. Celebrity Sex. Big Boobs.com. I went to the sites to see how bad it was, and it was as bad as it could possibly be. It was worse. Wowie, wow, wow, wow!
The boy's father got the honor of being the first to confront him this time. The boy stalled, eyes darting this way and that. Finally, he sighed with feigned bravado, "That? That was years ago!"
Like when? Age 7?
His father replied, "The history of the Web sites you visited doesn't say, 'Oh, by the way, he checked out this one in 1995.' It's what you looked at most recently."
Caught, the boy admitted that he had been loitering in adult Web sites, but swore he hadn't chatted with anyone or bought anything. He did it only because the kids at school told him what sites to check out. I joined the discussion, and we talked about the degradation of women and the compromising positions in which they appeared on these sites, and the fact that he has sisters.
Then I did something he still doesn't know about, and that I don't plan on telling him until he is an adult. I obtained an anonymous e-mail address from another Internet provider, and I wrote to my son, pretending to be a stranger, a male stranger. I said something like, "Hey, wasssssup, guy? Enjoying our Web sites? How old are you, man? See you around. Write back."
I didn't write anything disgusting or suggest a meeting. I just wanted him to see that by going to these adult sites, he could be traced by creeps perusing the Internet looking for kids.
A few hours later, he yelled from the computer in a strangled voice of panic. "Mama, do you know somebody by this name?"
Keeping a straight face, I said, "No. What did he say?"
He looked nervous and said, "Nothing. He just knew that I visited."
I said, "People can put what's called a cookie on your e-mail and track where you go. Just ignore it and don't write back. He'll leave you alone." (Was the "cookie" part true? I don't know, but it sounded plausible.)
The boy breathed a sign of relief, although I noticed him muttering the stranger's name throughout the evening, trying to locate any recollection of him. As instructed, however, he never wrote back, and the "stranger" has left him alone. The boy also now has parental controls slapped on, and he can do research on the Web only when one of us is in the room.
Sometimes, I wonder: How did I ever imagine I could become a mother? And I have come up with an answer -- ignorance. There are days when I am in so far over my head, I think I must have been out of my mind to think I could parent. And I still question whether I did the right thing, inventing the stranger's name, writing the message. Probably not. I was just so scared. I wanted to show my boy that his choices are not made in a vacuum, that his presence on those Web sites could not be private and might be dangerous. I wanted to scare him into being safe.
He is a good boy. He devours books and craves all kinds of movies, and he will throw his arms around me or his father at the orthodontist's office.
So how do I raise this child into a responsible and caring man in the blitz of Celebrity Sex and Free Fuck Theatre? I can only do it bit by bit as I figure out the terrain of his early teenage years. I can make him see "Pollock" instead of "Hannibal" or "Babette's Feast" instead of "The Silence of the Lambs." I can take him to hear Sister Helen Prejean lecture. I can drive him and his sisters to see snow in the mountains. I can take him to church, although he has recently decided he is agnostic or would prefer to believe in Zeus as much as God. I can keep taking walks with him.
What else can I do? He is a loving, laughing boy who hears "BigBoobs.com" and thinks, "Hey, that's for me. Gotta check it out." I know I can't protect him forever. I also know from watching other friends who are further along in this trajectory of parenting that this is all going to seem innocuous in a few years compared with what's in store. But what I would like is for him to be a boy for a little longer, because his childhood is slipping through my fingers at such an accelerated speed.
It's probably time to return Roller Coaster Tycoon. His grades are vastly improved, and he might need to build some more roller coasters. And while he sleeps, maybe I'll whisper in his ear, "Hey, sweet boy, could you stay a kid just a little longer?"