One of the great things about The Boy having so many older cousins is that I can see what's coming down the pike years before it actually arrives. Every developmental milestone, behavior challenge, passing phase or teachable moment shows up somewhere in the clan years before I have to deal with it up close and personally. There's always a cousin going through something that I know The Boy will eventually go through as well. Don't think I'm not taking copious notes. I have no desire to reinvent the parenting wheel.
Last weekend, two of The Boy's older cousins arrived for family weekend festivities sleepy-eyed, yawning and sporting impressive bed heads at two in the afternoon. When questioned, they proudly revealed that they'd only been awake for an hour. Because they had stayed up until daylight the night before.
"Staying up all night is awesome," the younger of the two reported. "You can play video games and watch TV and hang out and do stuff, and all with nobody bothering you." By "nobody," it was obvious that he meant grown-ups. Annoying, bothersome grown-ups.
I didn't take it personally. I was a late-night kid myself. The rule in our family on weekends and in the summertime was that as long as you weren't doing anything dangerous, and you weren't waking the adults up, you were free to stay up as late as you wanted. And I took full, delicious advantage of that rule. It was after midnight that I developed my taste for '70s glitter rock, watching Marc Bolan and David Bowie on The Midnight Special and Saturday Night Live — frequently with my cousins on the pullout sofa bed beside me. We'd roam freely in and out of the kitchen, loading up on cookies and chips and cereal, and then we'd watch TV, configure the sofa cushions into forts and spaceships, and talk about the kind of random nonsense that kids discuss when the grown-ups aren't around. Then, eventually, we'd all pass out from sheer exhaustion, sleeping well into the next morning's cartoon lineup. It was wonderful.
Once, when I was about 8 years old, I went to spend the night with a friend across the street, who, unbeknownst to me, had a firm 9 o'clock bedtime, even on weekends. Not only were we put to sleep in separate beds with the lights out at 9 on the dot, but when we tried to whisper to each other, her father came down the hall and shushed us, threatening to put us in separate rooms if we weren't quiet. He needn't have worried about his daughter; since she was conditioned to that set bedtime, she fell asleep almost immediately. That left me, lying in the dark and looking across into the window of my own house, where I could see my brother and sister watching television and drawing pictures. I picked up my pillow and tiptoed down the stairs, out of the door and across the street. My siblings let me in and welcomed me home. No grown-ups knew what had transpired until the next morning, when my empty guest bed was discovered. I still wonder how that phone call went.
Today it's a whole different scene after dark. When I was the age The Boy's cousins are now, the worst thing we could get into while our parents were sleeping was watching monster movies on Shock Theater on Channel 8. During our teen years, once cable had made the scene, the raciest programming that we were likely to come across was Cinemax After Dark. Even on "Skinemax," as we called it, you were probably only talking about soft-focus boobs on a beach. Now there's the Internet. And pay-per-view. And even the "regular" channels are presenting fairly explicit content, under the guise of reality, or documentary, or hey, even just ratings. If you leave a kid unsupervised at night with a computer or a television, it's like handing him the keys to the most disturbing peep-show emporium that ever existed.
What's the solution? There are watchdog programs, and parental controls, sure, but show me a parental control, and I'll show you a thousand kids who can get past it in 10 seconds flat. And you, as the parent, can ban and forbid and threaten — and trust me, I plan to — but again, when has banning anything kept a kid away from it? It's a conundrum, and I won't even pretend to have an answer. All I know is that I see a lot of sleepless nights in my future, or a lot of early bedtimes in The Boy's. And neither one of those options sounds very appealing to me, but right now they're all I've got.