"When is a kid old enough for a pocket knife?" my daughter Marie asked. She was 7 or 8 at the time.
"I guess most kids get a knife when they're about 10, then they get into trouble with it and it gets taken away from them, and they get it back when they're 12," I said, feeling wonderfully wise. But if I were really smart, I would've had an attorney present. I had just entered into a contract to buy Marie a pocket knife for her 10th birthday.
I could have backed out, and I would have if Marie viewed the knife as a weapon. Although she was attracted by its mystique of danger, she wanted a pocket knife for use as a constructive tool. So, as her 10th birthday approached, I went knife-shop-ping. I don't really enjoy buying baby dolls for my daughters, but I love buying them things I would've wanted when I was a kid. I spent $35 for a deluxe jackknife with wooden grips and brass fittings. It has a locking blade so it won't fold up and cut off her fingers if she uses it to drill holes. I took it to a jeweler who engraved it with her initials and the date of her 10th birthday.
I was pretty sure Marie would handle it safely. She's generally sensible and nondestructive. I was more worried that 7-year-old Sally would get her hands on it. Last year she was furtively writing her big sister's name on walls and furniture with an indelible marker. Her frame-ups never worked, partly because Marie doesn't do that kind of thing and partly because all Sally's lower-case i's look like lollipops. I didn't want to see what she could do with three inches of tempered steel in her grubby hand.
The gift was received with delight if not surprise; my remark years ago had caused her to regard it as an entitlement — something you get automatically when the time arrives, like a brassiere. (Please, no)!
(Note to parents: Marie hasn't carved the furniture or assaulted her sisters with her new knife, but it is scary to watch her whittle, and she has left it lying open and unattended. If I had it to do over, I would set the age of knife ownership at 11 or 12.)
Marie's other big birthday present was not a toy either; it was a sleeping bag. Her old one has pictures of SpongeBob all over it, and she said it was too babyish to bring to fourth-grade slumber parties. I got her a dark-green one, lined with red-plaid flannel. It's a sleeping bag of such a sober, adult design that she could unroll it at a lumber-jacks' sleep-over without risk of derision.
Besides the age of knife-ownership, Marie and Sally are always pressing for a timetable of privileges and freedoms. They want to know what age a kid must be before she is allowed to go downtown with friends, to go downtown alone, walk to school alone, cross Main Street alone, stay home alone, baby-sit commercially, pierce her ears, and wear lipstick.
Like most healthy kids, Marie is usually in the process of breaking away from her parents. The fact that it's supposed to happen like this, comforts me only a little. Every time she has an attack of adolescent-style moodiness or declines a bedtime story or prefers the company of one of her girlfriends, I get a sad "this-is-it" feeling.
It's like the feeling I get when I say "Marie" when I mean "Sally" and I suspect it's my dad's Alzheimer's kicking in. But minutes later I'll be telling someone my phone number with a fluency and pre-cision that indicates my brain is still banging powerfully along on both cylinders, and the fear will pass. Similarly, Marie's growing- up progresses unevenly.
Last week, she and I emerged from the supermarket and were walking past a yel-low coin-operated horse that has been a family favorite for years. We had even named it when Marie was little. "You wouldn't still want to ride ol' Buttercup, would you?" I asked.
"Sure, Dad," she said, and hopped into the saddle for a couple minutes of mild jouncing. She probably wouldn't have wanted any of her friends to see her, and I didn't jump around, waving my arms and yelling, "Hey, come back here!" the way I did when she was 5. Her smile was small, and maybe she was thinking this would be her last ride on Buttercup. But even so, it was the best 50 cents I ever spent.