A few days ago, I squatted next to my four-year old neighbor from down the street, Toby, as he sat in his mom’s jogging stroller on the sidewalk. I asked a typical adult question, “Do you think Santa’s coming this year?” Solemn, he silently nodded.
I only saw him every few months and we didn’t know each other well. To pass the slightly awkward time until his mom returned from grabbing something she’d forgotten inside her house, I asked another thoughtless question. “Have you been a good boy?”
A frown creased his face as he seemed to struggle with an internal debate, fingers fluttering in the air. “Well, I think so.” He looked this way and that, as if he were thinking about the bad things he’d done.
I felt terrible. He seemed to have taken my flippant query seriously and struggled in an existential internal debate about good and evil.
I tried to sugarcoat it, “I’ll bet you’re a good boy most of the time.”
He looked doubtful and thought for a moment, than his eyebrows shot up with apparent enlightenment. “Yeah, I’m being a good boy right now.” He smiled, seeming happy to make a positive report of himself.
“Yes, you are,” I said, relieved he placidly sat in his stroller and didn’t fuss in his mom’s absence.
Toby faded for a moment because, all at once, a memory of an ex-boyfriend flashed to mind. He had said the same thing as Toby when I discovered his years of cheating on me. The boyfriend had added, with anger, “None of this mattered until you found out.” In his case, appearing to be a good boy was all that counted. He quickly became history.
Maybe society’s Santa Claus myth prompted our children to have an early acquaintance with good and evil, providing a way for a young conscience to develop.
But I hoped Toby wouldn’t evolve into a person who did the right thing only when Santa’s reckoning, or a wronged girlfriend’s judgment, loomed large. At least, Toby seemed to tussle with his conscience, a good sign for future maturity.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.