My child is corrupt. Not morally (I think), but in that old-fashioned way of all the clerks and bureaucrats in Chekhov stories. She wants bribes. She has from the day she was born. Part of me thinks all children are like this. Beneath the faultless skin, behind the innocent eyes, lies a sweaty Carpathian customs official, always demanding a small fee to fix some unspecified problem with your confiscated passport.
I have encouraged this venality. We thought, like some first-time parents, that we would never bribe. But we saw quickly that this is functionally impossible. Children are forever holding us hostage, with a tantrum in public, a meltdown when it’s time to sleep. At those moments, they have essentially confiscated your passport. They have created a situation that needs solving. And they know, from the earliest prelingual days, that you will solve this problem by offering a bribe.
[Space here for your judgmental thoughts about me. I am a lazy and maybe bad parent who conditioned my children to expect these bribes and then blames them for it. You are right. Bravo. Now back to my point.]
I’ve used this corruption to my advantage at times. Particularly when it comes to travel, which is something that I have to do and have to explain to my children when I do it. And I hate how unhappy it makes them. Because if I was a cleverer or more kindly father, I might not do it or have to do it, and then they wouldn’t cry. But instead, I have, since the beginning, placated them with offers of bribes. Buhpizes as they’ve been known in my children’s particular dialect of babytalk: surprises.
It’s actually a little disheartening how this would turn them around. One moment distraught at the prospect of losing their father for some unknowable number of days (unknowable only because they didn’t actually understand what a day or a week was), the next moment almost glad to see me go, because whenever the hell I came back, I would come with some chocolate and trinkets, maybe a stuffed monkey from the Hudson newsstand at the Atlanta airport.
[Thus revealing the true nature of fatherhood: I want to leave and I want to be missed when I do.]
This is all on my mind because last night, as I reminded my five-year-old daughter that I’m headed to Russia today, she did not hold out her proverbial sausage-fingered hand. She did not look for a kickback. She told me not to go, and when I said I’d bring back presents, she said a string of words that I’m not sure she’s ever said in that order before: I don’t want a present. I want daddy.
Don’t worry, dear reader. I will not trouble your image of me as a selfish corrupter of my children by getting all moist about my daughter’s new love for me instead of trinkets. Because last night, it occurs to me, simply marked the arrival of Corruption 2.0. She’s almost in kindergarten; her mind has developed enough that she can now see around corners. Her “I want daddy” shtick? A charade, part of a cunning new strategy to defer gratification now (the promise of chocolates or one of those stacking matryoshka dolls) in order to sucker me in with her cooing words so that I will make, in future, much larger concessions. This is not a small shakedown. This is a patient con, laying the groundwork for a string of ultimate heists: my house, my car, my heart. And I won’t even know I’ve been robbed.