We come into this world, each of us, with nothing. On our first breath outside the womb, there is nothing we’ve earned, and nothing we owe. No history, no mistakes. We are tiny little blank slates of humanity, with the potential to become absolutely anything. The sky above the maternity ward is the proverbial limit.
Our skin is a blank slate too, all smooth and pink. It’s free of the wrinkles, calluses and age spots that will come in time, and--except for whatever horrors are going on around that belly button—it’s entirely clear of scars. They say nobody’s perfect. I say nobody’s perfect for very long.
Parents hang on to this kind of “perfect” as best they can, coddling their little ones in everything soft and plush. Babies and children live for a time in a kind of bubble, their vulnerable new bodies shielded from the real world, which tends more toward the sharp and pointy.
Eventually that real world seeps in through the pillow-soft cracks. Knees are skinned, legs are bruised, and we bleed.
Never having had a child of my own, I can’t imagine how parents cope with this transition. Sooner or later though, they all manage to do it; to go from holding that precious little newborn in their arms, to allowing that same child to head out into the world to start making their own mistakes. Scars accumulate on the once-perfect skin, and moms and dads must accept that they’re powerless to stop it.
It’s easy to recognize those who’ve reached this level of parenting. They start saying things like, Oh, it’ll be better before you get married, or as a friend’s grandmother once said, Get back outside kid, you’re bleeding all over my clean kitchen floor.
These are the same parents—bless their rational souls--who might even introduce their sons and daughters to the magic of owning a pocket knife.
My generation is probably one of the last for whom pocket knives were a childhood staple. They were the go-to tool for nine year-old boys and girls alike. Tool is a key concept here, the knives occupying a broad middle ground between potential weapon and frivolous toy.
As kids, we never thought of pocket knives as weapons. Not once. If we were intent on hurting each other (and hurt each other, we did) it was most often with words, or the occasional rock or fist. But we knew the knives weren’t toys either. Talk about a valuable life lesson! We understood that just because something’s fun to use, didn’t mean it came free of responsibility.
Seeing “fun” as privilege is just as important today. Think of all the kids forbidden from owning a pocket knife who’re walking around instead with cell phones and facebook profiles. I shudder to think how much trouble a twelve-year-old girl can get herself into today with an unsupervised Instagram account. (If you’re the parent of a tween-ager and you don’t know what Instagram is, you’d better start asking your kid some questions.) That was part of the beauty of pocket knife ownership, too—early on, it forced parents and children into conversations about safety and responsibility.
Entrusted as kids with an object that could potentially harm others, we were probably better prepared for the bigger responsibilities that came later in life: our first driver’s license, first date, or first apartment away from home.
Pocket knives taught us something about preparedness and self-reliance, too. This was pivotal in my own childhood; When my dad gave me my first pocket knife at age nine, he also gave me a feel for what it was like to take care of myself. As a grown woman, I know I’ll never fully comprehend the workings of an internal combustion engine the way most men do, nor will I have the strength to open every pickle jar, every time. But being able to solve my own problems with my own little tool was remarkably empowering back then, and still is today.
Maybe most important of all, pocket knives taught us about consequences. Mishandle the tool, forget or disregard what you’ve been taught, and there will be penalties. There will be blood. There’s a deep, forty-year-old scar on my left thumb, courtesy of that first Swiss Army knife, and a better reminder of consequences, I could not imagine.
I think about that scar every time I pass the children’s play zone at my local shopping mall. This place has got foam-padded walls to contain the tiny, perfect people it invites, and the carpet is a giant nature mural of plush stepping stones. There are oversized logs and mushrooms to climb on, all made of shiny molded plastic without a sharp edge to be found. The place reminds me of a prison cell where the guards take your belt and your shoelaces before they lock you up; a hardened criminal couldn’t hurt himself in here if he tried.
Let them play, I figure. Soon enough they’ll find out that the real world isn’t nearly as soft. Soon enough they’ll leave this little fantasy land and start to explore the rest of the mall, as shoppers.
They’ll have a thousand sale items from which to choose, the majority of which will fall into that broad space somewhere between potential weapons and frivolous toys. They’ll be able to buy fun things that command a certain level of responsibility, things that come with consequences: a hunting license, a prom dress, a kayak, an engagement ring.
For some, one other purchase will be made first. It’ll happen when a parent or grandparent marches on into the sporting goods store, just like my own dad once did. When they shell out a few bucks to buy their child that magical first pocket knife, full of sharp blades and life lessons.
Sometime later, maybe even later that same day, there will be blood. After that, a scar, maybe on the thumb, of a kid who’s now a little less perfect, and a lot more enlightened.