Every time it snows here in New England and my children complain about putting on coats and boots, I summon stories from my miserable childhood.
"You call this snow?" I ask. "When I was a kid, we used to walk through snowdrifts eight feet high just to get to the woodshed."
"Dad," my 5-year-old daughter says, "you grew up in California. It doesn't snow there. Remember?"
She's right. It never snowed in my Southern California hometown. Darkest December saw the thermometer plummet to the mid-40s. I never trudged to school in driving sleet, never shoveled snow up to my waist, never grumbled through another grizzly March. And the only woodshed I saw was in books about New England.
A year ago, I made the mistake of telling my children this. They've never forgotten it. So while other parents get to spin those old stories--"When I was your age, I trudged six miles to school in a blizzard"--I have to make up my childhood hardships. I'm getting pretty good at it.
"You call this a sun?" I ask each summer. "Back in California when I was your age, the sun was so bright we had to wear welder's glasses. Take 'em off and you'd be blind in seconds."
"And blue skies!" I rant on. "Skies so blue you could die of boredom. Same dull weather day in, day out, till you went mad. You don't know how lucky you are."
My wife says I shouldn't lie to the kids, but I disagree. Psychologists say parental exaggeration plays a vital role in a child's development. Or if they don't say this, they should. We've heard that this generation is the first that will not live as well as its parents, but we can't let them find out. We owe our children hope, a future, freedom from the drudgery of the past. To give them a sense of progress, we have to tell them how bleak our own childhoods were, even if they weren't.
"Take my neighborhood," I say. "You kids get some privacy here. But during the baby boom, there were kids in every house. Kids swarming all over the block. Kids playing hide-and-seek, baseball, blindman's buff. I never had a moment's peace. Brutal! It was brutal!"
If my kids ever find out that my childhood was easier than theirs, my parental authority won't be worth the birth certificates it's printed on. How will I play the paterfamilias if they find out I got to eat all the cookies I could get my hands on? That I ate frostee cones all year round? That I got out of school in June and didn't crack a book, let alone put on shoes, till September? No artsy day camps all summer, no cramming into car seats, no daycare day after day. My childhood was just raw, naked fun, with the TV on all the time. As a cautionary growing up tale, this just won't do.
"I worked like a mule all summer long! Totin' barges, liftin' bales!"
"I thought you went to the beach all summer."
"Well, we did go to the beach. A few times. But it was hell. Or heck, at least. Heck's Beach, California. With blistering asphalt parking lots and oiled bodies soaking up the murderous sun. And me out there on the hot sand, sweating it out in my welder's glasses. You kids can't imagine how I suffered on that beach." My kids suspect I'm stretching the truth. They may even know I'm just plain lying. But as a dad, it's my right and my privilege to have had a miserable childhood, even if I didn't.
"Dad, tell us again about how you had to trudge six miles to school in the blazing sun."
"Seventy-five degrees," I said. "Sometimes 80. You kids don't know how easy you have it."