Children create worlds small enough for them to feel very big
in. I recall, when I was 9, having spent virtually the entire
summer in a front-yard sycamore. I had subdivided my branchy realm
into distinct subregions and sensed that I was in command of a
universe through which I passed with ease and enterprise. I clearly
believed that beyond my tree there was no other world.
My son, Alyosha, now 10, has also acquired a world of his own
design. In the past few weeks he has developed a passion for
basketball cards. I hold my tongue every time he takes his
allowance and speeds out of the house to blow it all on yet another
pack. When he returns home he pulls out his collector's album and,
sitting at the kitchen table, audits and adds to his collection
with the silent concentration of a monk. I once disturbed him in
the middle of his serious task, at which he threw up his arms and
exclaimed, "Aw, Dad! Now I have to start all over again!" And he
did exactly that.
The other day I awoke to a thundering of feet above me,
accompanied by a fall of books and the slam of a closet door. I
made my way to Alyosha's room and found it a mess, and he with a
look of panicked despondency on his face. I asked him what the
"You wouldn't understand," he said, still scanning the room with
his laser eyes.
"Maybe I would."
"OK," he said, turning to me. "I lost my Hakeem Olajuwon."
"Your what?" I asked.
My son shook his head in disappointment. "See," he said. "I knew
you wouldn't understand. It's a card, Dad."
And then I made the type of misstatement for which parents are
famous. "Well," I said, "it's only a piece of cardboard."
I immediately recognized my error. But it was too late. It was
as if my mother those long years ago had told me, "It's only a
tree." Alyosha flung himself down on his bed and wailed, "You don't
Oh, but I did, and I do. I was just a victim of the parental
impulse to minimize the catastrophe.
The next day, one of my son's friends came for a visit. If
Alyosha was the prince of basketball cards, then Zac was the
emperor deluxe. Alyosha's collection amounted to a mere 51 cards,
while Zac boasted a king's ransom of 400. He was Alyosha's hero of
the moment, a co-inhabitor of the world of basketball cards.
Zac immediately understood my son's situation and offered the
comfort and affirmation that I did not. He suggested that the two
of them integrate their collections into one giant album, which
they could pass back and forth from week to week. Alyosha
apparently saw this as an opportunity to create the illusion of
basketball-card wealth, while Zac may have been simply acting out
of friendship and charity. …