The last time I paid for a dessert was 2011.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not a dessert guy. I’m not the restaurant patron who never fails to ask his dining partners, “Wanna split a piece of pie?” But confections keep showing up at our table anyway. Or at least they have since my son Charlie was born, and we bring him to restaurants and he chats up our servers like he’s trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket. They smile at him the way all strangers smile at Charlie — their expressions weirdly similar to the tigers who stare hungrily at my son from behind glass barriers at the zoo — and then they bring him a free dessert. “On the house,” they’ll say. At this point, my wife and I have stopped even pretending to be surprised.
It’s not just sugar and chocolate. People give things to my son. He’s like a game show contestant who can’t lose. Everywhere we take him, he gets perks. We take him to the grocery store, and people we don’t know slip toys into his hands. We take him to a baseball game, and he walks out with a free hat and team jersey that didn’t cost us a dime. We take him to a phone store, and within minutes he’s the proud owner of a new set of Bluetooth headphones (just because he thought they looked “cool”). We take him to a movie that’s technically sold out — “Aw shucks, looks like we won’t be able to see The Emoji Movie after all. What a… tragedy”— and he somehow gets tickets for us anyway, and a free popcorn.
I honestly don’t know how he does it. Charlie isn’t especially charming or attractive. I mean, my wife and I think he is, but our opinions don’t count. We have parent goggles. Which are like beer goggles, but instead of booze distorting the truth, it’s our unconditional love for the tiny creature we created from scratch. Obviously, we think he’s delightful and unique — a Dean Martin in a Gary Coleman body — but we are unreliable narrators. If we saw another child who looked and behaved exactly like Charlie, our first reaction would be, “What an asshole. He’s like an attention succubus. I wish I could be around for the first time he experiences rejection.”
But somebody out there finds him cute — a lot of somebodies, actually — and it’s starting to become a problem. Not just for Charlie, who has become a little too comfortable with the kindness of strangers, and is now inherently suspicious of any unfamiliar face not offering him candy. (How he’s managed not to end up in a windowless van with duct tape over his mouth is nothing short of a miracle.) It’s also a problem for us, his parents, who are just as complicit. We’ve benefitted from his adolescent magnetism. Because of him, we’ve gotten into overbooked restaurants without reservations. We’ve been upgraded at hotels, from single rooms to three-bedroom suites with panoramic views. Sometimes those free desserts come with a free brandy for Dad. Call it trickle down cuteonomics.
Last year, we got tickets for our entire family to the World Series because of Charlie. I was offered one ticket, but then I sent the publicist a photo of my son being adorable in a Cubs hat, and presto, we’ve got tickets for everybody and a hotel for game night. I feigned surprise. “Oh that’s so weird you’d give me those amazing tickets three rows from the dugout. I had no idea that might happen.” That was a boldfaced lie. I might as well have asked Charlie to call the publicist and say “I love pasketti! Wanna rub my tummy-tum?”
But why does it keep working? Why do strangers keep rewarding my son just for existing? Zoologist Nathan Yaussy tells me it may be a subconscious survival instinct that’s been evolutionarily hardwired into us. “No other animal takes more than ten years before the baby leaves the mother,” he says. “Because of this giant drain on resources, our species needed a broad, inclusive social group where everyone takes care of everyone’s kids.”
So, as it turns out, it’s not that my kid is so freaking adorable, it’s that he’s just adorable enough to flip the “help the child” switch in people’s brains. They give my son dessert and toys because winter is coming and we need somebody young and strong to toil the soil come spring. Sweet.
That doesn’t mean I should keep letting it happen. Sure I appreciate the Cubs tickets and the room upgrades and not having to pay for desserts. But maybe letting Charlie be on the receiving end of an endless conveyor belt, delivering whatever he wants directly to his Id, isn’t the dictionary definition of good parenting. Isn’t this how tomorrow’s Donald Trumps are made? Trump was a kid once, and ostensibly adorable. How many people showered him with gifts and candy and cooed at him, “You’re such a cutie, Donnie,” and he smiled back at them with a toothless grin and thought, “I’m going to take away your health insurance someday and maybe start a nuclear war?”
I got plenty of conflicting opinions from psychologists. Richard Watts, the author of Entitlemania: How Not to Spoil Your Kids, and What to Do if You Have, warned me that Charlie was on track for a problematic future.
“Children are like goldfish,” he said. “They will eat anything you feed them, even to the point of causing death. Children are the same.” Rather than let him gorge on all the gifts and perks, Watts said, we should let him struggle and feel the sting of not getting everything he thinks he needs. Teach him to crave experiences instead of things. When kids become solipsistic adults, Watts said, “it is always 100 percent the fault of the parent.”
But then there’s Alfie Kohn, author of The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children, who assured me that letting strangers make it rain with my 6-year-old “is hardly going to spoil him. Frankly, I’m more worried about the development of a child whose parents think that denying him things — or, worse, attention — will ‘build character’.”
Both raise good points. I don’t want Charlie to grow up and become an insufferable adult prick who blames me for raising him like a fat goldfish. But I also want World Series tickets. There has to be a happy medium which lets Charlie learn some hard lessons about the world and still allows me to get a table at that good restaurant downtown that I forgot to call ahead and make reservations.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a parent, it’s that everything you love about your child is fleeting. Those chubby cheeks, the hugs they can’t get enough of, the pants you never thought he’d fit into that he’s now outgrown. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” literally everybody tells you. “They grow up so fast.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. And not just for me. The 15-year-old with acne and a chip on his shoulder won’t get the free desserts or hotel upgrades like he did when puberty was still hilariously out of reach.
Charlie thinks he’s special. And for the moment at least, he is. But I’m not all that worried he’ll grow up to be another Trump. Because when he’s 15, he won’t be shitting on a gold toilet. The moment he stops being competitive with a box full of newborn puppies, he’ll realize that the world isn’t his for the taking anymore. Those free desserts will stop coming. We’ll go back to staying in the hotel rooms that are the size of walk-in closets. He’ll want to go to the World Series, and I’ll tell him, “So do I, but we don’t have that kind of money.”
I think that might be my hardest day as a parent. Because goddammit, I reeeeally want those tickets. But I’d rather have a son who doesn’t think he’s charming and pretty enough to get whatever he wants just because he wants it.