The Monkey likes to watch basketball with me, or rather she likes to be in the same room while I’m watching basketball. Or football. She is only vaguely aware of who is playing, unless it’s the Philadelphia Eagles or Carolina basketball—though during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament I can’t claim much better for myself; I frequently have to Google a set of initials before remembering which university it stands for. On Friday I asked her whether we should root for Memphis or North Texas; she considered the matter briefly before saying, as if pronouncing judgment on a fine wine, “North Texas, I think.” Then she returned her full attention to her Leapster, which binged its approval and cheerfully inquired whether a sea turtle might be larger than an orca.
The point isn’t the particular sport, or which teams are playing or who happens to be winning; it’s the experience of watching together. It would be male bonding if she were male, but hey, it’s the twenty-first century, and we could just as easily be watching women’s sports.
I don’t mean to say that she isn’t interested in the game, merely that she understands sports on a three year-old’s level, which is to say that every action on the court or the field is classified as either a good job or a bad job. She is a thoughtful kid, and always delighted to hand out praise. When a clutch three-point shot fell to force overtime and I yelled “Oh my”—”holy shit” being temporarily stricken from my gametime vocabulary—”My, my, what a shot!” she glanced at the screen and affirmed, “Good job, My!” Watching football she correctly signals first downs, touchdowns, and (with considerable prompting) safeties, even if she quickly forgets which team scored the points. Called upon to offer commentary on other people’s behavior, she becomes her own preschool gym teacher.
Recognizing bad jobs she often freelances. This is “bad job” not in the sense of committing a five-yard penalty or double dribbing but in the less subtle sense of yelling or hitting or generally acting bratty. She squints at the image of a coach yelling at the ref, his tie dangling pointlessly from his sweaty collar, his veins bulging dangerously in his neck, and she observes, somewhat sadly, “Daddy, that boy is doing a bad job.” She offered the same comment on a preview for a slasher movie starring Nicholas Cage as…some slasher dude, I don’t remember. The movie appeared to be dreadful, but the preview, predictably, caught her eye. After Nicholas Cage did something intended to be particularly scary, with a grimace and a chainsaw, she turned to me and said, “Daddy, I think that boy did a bad job.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I think everyone associated with that movie did a bad job.”
“I think he needs a time out,” she added, sounding concerned for the boy’s welfare.
When your slasher movie fails to scare even a small child I think you have a problem, but I have learned that I’m a fool to predict what she will take away from anything she sees on television. During last year’s tournament CBS ran, with distressing frequency, an ad for a brand of antiperspirant that featured a pointedly unperspiring young lady dancing…um, alluringly and in slow motion. Long dark hair flouncing dreamily, hips grinding, navel peeking, mouthing something naughty at the camera. You know: the usual, except that her offer of sex was aimed directly at the viewer and performed with such excruciating deliberation that the point must be obvious even to men too retarded to remember to put their deodorant on in the morning, let alone to have any chance of getting laid; yes, even they, should they buy this product and use as directed, will receive offers of fabulous blow jobs from unperspiring brunettes with perfectly flat abdomens.
At least I think the ad was for antiperspirant. I was a little…you know, distracted.
The Monkey, of course, was rapt. Every time the commercial came on she dropped whatever she was doing and stood fascinated before the glow of RGB sex. The commercial ran so frequently (and we watched so much basketball), with no appreciable drop in the Monkey’s enthusiasm, that I considered changing channels when it came on. The voice of the Obvious Parent whispered in my ear that commercials like this are what turn innocent three-year-olds into vapid heroin-jacked pole dancers. But there is no surer way to draw a child’s attention to something than to cover her eyes when she looks at it. Better, I thought, to ignore it.
Then, with the Final Four winding down, the Monkey ran to me and said, “Daddy! I can dance like the TV lady?”
There was no question in my mind who the TV lady was. And no, sweetie, I really don’t, I really, really…but I said, “Sure, honey, I’d love to see you dance.”
And so she began to move her arms and legs and turn around in what I took to be a more or less random manner, pretty much the way she usually dances—but very…very…slowly.
I began to laugh, and my laughing made the Monkey cry, because she thought I was laughing at her. I wasn’t, of course; I was laughing at myself. The kid was fascinated by the girl on TV dancing in slow motion, and here she had figured out how to do it herself, without the aid of cameras or special effects. Sex? What sex? She was dancing slowly.
I’ve learned in three years of rearing the Monkey that the mind of a small child is a black box. This is the opposite of every piece of parenting advice I ever read before I became a parent. I quit reading parenting advice soon after my daughter was born, because it’s condescending and stupid and nearly always inaccurate. Everybody’s different, but you can’t sell advice books by telling readers they just have to pay attention to their children. That’s too much work, and besides, it’s probably what they’d do on their own if there weren’t any advice books.
The job of a parent really would be easier if children were simple and predictable. If I could believe that watching previews for slasher flicks would cause my daughter to grow up to become a mass-murderer, my charge would be clear and straightforward. See a slasher preview, turn off the television and offer a homily on the sanctity of human life. But it isn’t that simple. At the age of three she’s merely saddened and disgusted by the behavior of the scowling mass-murderer on the screen, and fascinated that the pretty girl has learned to dance so slowly. God only knows what she gets out of ads for cars and beer, but I’m fairly certain that it’s not a desire to drive a car or to drink beer. The Obvious Parent would say that will change when she’s older, but I’m not convinced. Why should she be simpler and more predictable at twelve than she is at three?
Still, I have to protect her from dangerous influences, because that’s my job. I’m her father. The only adult television she sees, actually, is sporting events, and we watch them together, so that if something truly hideous appears before her—like, say, the evening news, or a promo for The Apprentice—I can switch off the TV and propose a rousing game of Candyland instead. But if I can’t easily predict what good or bad lessons she’ll learn from the idiot box, worrying about it too much is like complaining about the weather or exhorting my dog to read Milton. It makes me feel like I’m doing something, but it’s ultimately pointless.
I just pray to Jesus all these ads for the Masters don’t turn her into a golfer.