Island Packet — There is no joy on Earth so powerful, no happiness so unchained, as that seen in the eyes of a 10-year-old who has just learned he gets to dump a large bucket of ice water on his father’s head.
You should have seen this kid’s smile, his maniacal, delirious, 75 percent unsettling smile. I think he’s still got it; he’s upstairs asleep with it. Sci-fi evildoers from the ’70s smiled like this, but they also had villainous goatees so it looked kind of natural. I’ve special-ordered this little punk Lego trains two days before Christmas and didn’t get half the wild-eyed glee I got by saying the words, “Hey, remember those ice bucket videos we were watching? Sophie and Eva’s dad just challenged me.”
His eyes, wide. His hands, shaking. His brain, whirring and whizzing with possibility. “This sounds like fun! Can we do it now?”
Well, we couldn’t, because it was like 8 p.m. on a school night, and frankly he was making me nervous. He frightened me all the way through that night, through teeth-brushing and night-night books and dreaming probably and the next morning, when his breakfast-table enthusiasm suggested he probably didn’t so much “sleep” as “spend eight hours mentally drafting very cold-looking blueprints.”
Much like you, I’m sure, we had all spent the preceding days watching ALS ice bucket videos on Facebook, because they offered a timely, practical on-ramp into the idea of charitable donation, and because they involved people getting ice poured on their heads. This second part, if we’re being honest, probably resonated a little more with the fifth-graders.
The problem was this: My 10-year-old is also a sensitive soul, one who saves insects instead of squishing them and recoils from people — even fictional ones — suffering some manner of embarrassment or inequity. It’s a sweet trait, sure, but it’s also problematic, because kids’ literature, to emphasize the right/wrong dynamic, contains an awful lot of extremely psychopathic wizards, lions, pirates and traitors. My son has spent a lot of time legitimately yelling at Lucy, like she’s sitting next to him. (“You’re just being MEAN, ON PURPOSE! Why does Charlie Brown keep PLAYING WITH YOU?”) Do not even get this kid going on Draco Malfoy, he will eat up your entire afternoon.
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So the ice bucket challenge presented an unfamiliar stew of emotions; you could almost see them competing for space in his brain, or at least the space not occupied by dragon stories and Minecraft character names. (You know how they say humans only use 10 percent of their brains or whatever? Nine percent of his is full of fictitious dragon knowledge. Get ready, Colleges of America.) Donating to charity = good. Having a bucket of ice poured on a person’s head = bad. Helping those in need = very good. Watching his primary male role model embarrassed = unclear? Bad? Maybe? Probably good? Possibly the greatest thing to ever happen to him? Possibly something that requires an instinctive family-defending response?
There were a lot of primal, pre-adolescent things happening because of an ice bucket, is what I’m saying. (The 3-year-old, for his part, wanted nothing to do with any of this, having gotten in his wee little brain that he would be getting water dumped on him, which, though OK at water parks, in the pool, in the bathtub, at Disney World, in puddles and at the dinner table if we let him, is decidedly NOT OK when done in this one very specific scenario. Also I think that’s illegal.)
Needless to say, in the end, the instinct for family preservation was no match for a Lowe’s bucket, and he helped my wife and, to a lesser extent, the 3-year-old dump the bucket, which, incidentally, is like a million times worse than you think it’s going to be. (Just because it’s something that Britney Spears and George W. Bush can do doesn’t mean it’s easy.) And his look — you should have seen his look. That look kids get when they realize, for one of the first times, that their parents are fallible, that all this structure and authority we try to build for them is crackable, impermanent. “That looks good on you,” he smiled. “We should do that again, about once a week.” That following rules is important, but smashing out of them can sometimes be equally so. And, though he doesn’t know this one yet, that actions have consequences — and that revenge is a dish best served, or poured, cold.