End of Innocence

What's Wrong With This Picture? Absolutely nothing.

Yeah - we were teenagers and most people that observed us do the crazy things we did always said that, “Well, they’re teenagers, what do you expect?”

But it wasn’t until I was fathering teenagers that the “demarcation point” became so obvious. Where the day came that young adults were expected to do things a little better, a little more adult-themed, a little less oblivious; and it wasn’t until recently that I became aware of just how sad that moment is and what an indefinite loss it remains. Kids always seem to be in such a hurry to grow up. That’s a mistake. It shouldn’t be given away so easily.

My parents always said that the most beautiful sounds a parent hears are the voices of their children getting along and laughing together. As a parent I have found that to be true as well. Our youngest, Sam, came along eight years after our previous youngest. Our first set of four were born very close together in less than a six year span. They grew up together and are “tight” to this day. He was always just outside that bubble although the gap has closed considerably in the last two years.

Anyway Sam was always observing and experiencing the changes happening to the older set (the three eldest of which were girls). Many of you that have teenager girls recall that those years are filled with the melodramatic, strife-ridden, over-blown mini-dramas that can turn a disagreement over what one should wear to church into a series of life-altering threats and reactions. But before they got there, when they were younger teenagers, Sam’s youth and innocence brought about changes in their personalities that were awesome. They were just beginning that “teen attitude” when he came along. He reminded them how fun it was to just “play” with reckless abandon and it allowed them to put off growing up just a little longer.

I’d come home from work and hear squeals of laughter from the driveway and once inside I’d find an intricate series of bed sheets hanging over chairs as a made-up tent village had been created, built and inhabited by the whole gang. They’d quickly explain they did it all for Sam but it sure looked like they were having a good time too. And that would be the pattern – cooking up special cakes and cookies, Sam covered with flour, the kitchen a mess but everyone laughing and having a ball and then the explanation that they were doing it just to keep Sam busy. In other words they acted like aunts and uncles to excuse their indulgences but once they were fully engaged with the kid they were nothing more than a sister or brother that was playing with nothing more than their brother. They were shedding the reservation of being cool (that they played out in front of their friends) and letting their hair down and being themselves. I recall feeling bad for Sam sometimes when the older kids would have friends over and suddenly the childish requests were met with a closed bedroom door or a refusal to play with him in the same manner they had just been doing a day before. He was too young to understand that they were going through just as much confusion as he. And I have to add that this shut out didn’t happen often. They included him almost all the time; he was very fortunate. But when it did occur, the look on his face was heart-breaking. More lessons.

But all three of my daughters married young and began families of their own soon after high school and as they skipped over all the things that took them from teenager to young adult to full blown responsible adult it sometimes saddens me to consider all they gave up. I know their natural tendencies are to jump in the pool, blow bubbles in their milk and laugh out loud (usually too “out loud”) but now as parents and responsible adults they have to contain some of their natural tendencies. They watch Sam, now 16, playing with their toddlers in much the same way they played with him once – it is all so symmetrical.

Don’t get me wrong, they are all fun parents who get in there and get dirty with their kids but they have to be the one who says, “Okay, enough, this is getting out of hand.” They never had to be that person before – and that change is a significant one.

By the time Sam was 3 and more durable and easy to play with, Nicco, the youngest of the first set, was 11. He watched over his brother like a hawk and today when I see video of them together back in those days I swell with emotion the way he shepherds him everywhere. But anyway Nicco would FULLY engage Sam (who just worshipped his older brother) and I recall pulling in the driveway one afternoon to this incredible scene.

Nicco had dug a hole in the ground and filled it with water. Sam was sitting at the edge of the hole naked and wet with a frog in one hand and a melting ice cream bar in the other. The dog was covered with mud as were Nicco and Sam and the garden hose was hooked up to a rotating sprinkler which was inadvertently spraying through the screens of the back porch every 15 seconds or so. Clearly after filling the hole with water they boys neglected to cover their tracks by putting the sprinkler back where it was. Foxy they were not. Nicco had straddled his back bike tire over the hole so that the bike stood erect and when he pedaled, a steady stream of muddy water would spray Sam and the dog down from head to toe which all of them found to be absolutely hilarious; especially the dog. Later my wife explained that she had simply gone to put a load of laundry in and at that moment only the hole was dug so they put this little mud-spraying plan together in only a matter of minutes. Well she came out the back door right as I pulled into the driveway and the boys turned to look at the two of us with our mouths gaping. And then Nicco said the line that could have set off an explosion but did just the opposite; the line that kept him on the right side of childhood and still somewhat does to this day. He said, “What’s wrong?”

And I said the first thing that popped into my head: “Absolutely nothing.”

Hold on to your children’s childhood my friends. The end of the innocence comes too soon and life should be enjoyed by those that have trouble-free opportunities for as long as possible. I don’t mean your post college kids should stay in your basement until they are 30, I just mean a kid is a kid and that privilege is a beautiful thing.

Ron Ciancutti is the Director of Procurement for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.