Backstory: My second-grade pundit
What happens when your seven-year-old asks for a 'surge' in his allowance?
The other morning I was brushing the tangle on my youngest son's head in an effort to make it into a semblance of hair when he looked up from his cereal and said, "Daddy, can I have a surge in my allowance?"
Drawing on years of experience as a parent, I gaped stupidly and tried to avoid the issue. "Surge?" I said, edging toward the living room. "What's that, a spelling challenge word?"
He pointed at the morning paper, or at least the part which had not yet been shredded by Bingo the Bouncing Beagle. It was open to a story about President Bush's new plan for Iraq. "No, I read it there," he said. "I think it means, 'a lot more.' "
Meet my son, second-grade pundit. Don't get me wrong, raising kids in the region of our nation's capital has many positive aspects. The museums are free. The baseball team is awful, so it's easy to get tickets. But it has challenges, too. Kids reflect the environment in which they grow up, and if that's Washington, some of them at a tender age will sound like hosts of C-SPAN Morning Journal.
That's Daniel. You go in to kiss him good night, and he leans over the rail of his bunk bed and says, "Dad, who was a better president, John F. Kennedy or Franklin Pierce?"
He's 7 years old, and he goes around telling people he was named after Daniel Tompkins, the sixth vice president of the US. (Untrue – I'd never heard of him.) Daniel's teacher's name is Ms. Carter, and he thinks she is related to both Jimmy Carter and the Egyptologist Howard Carter, discoverer of King Tut's tomb.
I blame Time magazine. Last year Daniel got a Time Almanac for Kids, the sort of book other kids might riffle through to find the top animated film of the year, or the percentage of US households that own freshwater fish. But it was the list of presidents and vice presidents that fascinated him. He talked about US chief executives as if they were Pokémon characters with false teeth or facial hair.
"Dad!" he'd say. "Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to ride in a car, an airplane, and a submarine!" Or "Dad! An asteroid was named after Herbert Hoover! It's called Hooveria!"
Then he found out he shares a birthday with President Bush, and it was all over. He started to scan the News for Kids page of the paper every morning. His classmates are reading "The Magic Tree House." My son claims his favorite author is Doris Kearns Goodwin.
So I should have been prepared for the issue of the surge in allowance. Gamely, I tried to recover and turn it into a teaching moment. "Surge means a temporary thing, sort of an advance on what you'd get anyway," I said. "Is that what you want?"
"No, he said, "I need $19 so I can buy a Tampa Bay Devil Rays 2006 complete team pack online." (His Devil Rays fixation is a whole other idiosyncrasy – he says they need all the fans they can get.)
"You'd have to surge five weeks of allowance," I said. "That's a lot. What you really need to do is save."
I slipped out of the room, hoping to win the conversation by escaping it. At least he hadn't asked for a supplemental appropriation. Clutching a cup of coffee, I riffled through the Style section. Maybe something would finally happen in "Apartment 3-G."
Daniel reappeared at my side. "Dad," he said, gravely. "Who's better, Democrats or Republicans?"
This was a key moment, the political equivalent of a child inquiring about The Facts of Life. Trapped, I was forced to take decisive action.
"Go ask your mother," I said.
• Peter Grier is a staff writer in Washington.