I used to feel superior to parents who think their kids can do no wrong. The extreme example is the deluded mother wailing, "He's a good boy" to television cameras after her son has been arrested for shooting the local bodega owner while robbing the place.
I never thought I had any illusion about my son John's saintliness. I know, for instance, that he sometimes conveniently forgets to do his homework. Also, a couple of times he has helped himself to some of my spare change. And when he was about 6, I spied him pocketing a candy bar in a grocery store.
But beyond this brand of misbehavior, he would not venture ... or so I thought.
Then one day when he was 13, I got a phone call at work from his homeroom teacher. John and two other students had been seen drinking beer after school, she told me. The three then reportedly went off to one kid's apartment in downtown Manhattan to try marijuana.
My son? No way.
That night I told John what the teacher had said. He seemed dismayed, saying he didn't know how such a tale could have started. I felt like a cad for doubting him.
I wrote a letter to the teacher to set things straight, imagining myself as the crusading father in "The Winslow Boy."
I now cringe when I think of that letter, which ended with: "Thank you for bringing the report to my attention. I certainly took it seriously, even though the particulars as you relayed them to me seemed highly unlikely, knowing my son as I do."
A couple of days later, after more evidence surfaced, John fessed up at a meeting in the school principal's office. He had in fact been part of a trio passing around a can of beer.
Afterward they did go to the apartment of another of these kids, who broke out his father's stash of marijuana. The only thing that prevented them from smoking the stuff was they couldn't figure out how to roll it.
My son later told me he didn't know there was going to be any marijuana at the boy's apartment, and that he'd had only a sip of the beer. He said he had lied to me because he was afraid.
I felt shocked at my son's dabbling in drugs and alcohol, and was disoriented at being so completely taken in by him.
He had cried in the principal's office, but then seemed genuinely relieved to have gotten the incident out in the open.
His mother and I grounded him for two weeks. "You do the crime, you've got to do the time," is how my son cheerfully put it.
I now am more willing to believe he can get into trouble in the ways kids sometimes do.
It's been about a year since this happened, and we regularly talk about what he might do the next time he finds himself around others drinking beer or smoking pot. I point out that it takes guts to walk away from such scenes. The subject is a regular topic of conversation.
The boy whose parents had the marijuana in the house lives outside our neighborhood, making it easy for John to steer clear of him, something he decided to do without any prompting. And when the other boy suggested another beer-drinking outing to my son, John declined, saying he'd gotten into a lot of trouble the first time.
When he told me this, I realized getting punished provided him with the cover he needed to easily turn down the invitation.
I ask him whether the kids he knows are drinking or doing drugs. He says that there is plenty of that going on. Not everyone is doing it, but it is happening. I explain that abusing drugs or alcohol short-circuits the growing-up process.
He seems to be listening.
It still makes me uneasy to think that my boy so successfully lied to me. But I'm grateful that I've been woken up to the fact that good boys can get into trouble, too.