Here’s a story about how a glass of milk drove me insane. Ready? When I was around 9 years old, on an otherwise unremarkable evening, I stared with suspicion at the drink I was having with dinner. The odd sensation I had was a cousin of déjà vu — it felt like what many would now call “a glitch in the Matrix.” The level of milk in the glass looked low, or lower than I thought it should be, given how little I had drunk of it so far: In short, I was sure I hadn’t had that much milk yet, and wondered if someone else at the table had sipped from it when I wasn’t paying attention.
I did not know back then that this incongruity also served as the main conundrum in Guy de Maupassant’s horror story The Horla, which is narrated by a man slowly losing his mind. But I did know it was weird. So I turned to my wise and wonderful dad, sitting right beside me, and asked what had happened to the missing milk.
Without hesitating, he said, “Probably it evaporated.”
Reader, I have since learned that milk does not evaporate — and that my dad was fucking with me. Still, for a good while after that night, I drank everything quickly, with the understanding that if I took my time, the milk, water, juice or soda would melt away into the atmosphere. Dad said so! Even today I amuse myself in bars by thinking, Better drink up, or it’ll disappear. The one time I brought up this bullshit to him as an adult, he had no memory of it whatsoever.
Of course he doesn’t: Child-rearing is a long, stressful, busy process, and my parents had three kids. There must have been many times when one of us had some silly question, and they weren’t disposed to go all the way down a rabbit hole, preferring to enjoy their dinner, and had dismissed the concern with simple nonsense instead of the complicated truth. No doubt this was a small, mischievous pleasure for someone overworked.
And that is how we got to the “gonna tell my kids” meme, which lays out plans to troll, deceive and confuse our future offspring:
Of course, Twitter’s meme team didn’t invent the practice of feeding your progeny false and ridiculous information for sport — my own dad is proof. Yet even he didn’t reach the heights of fake news achieved by a character he bears a curious resemblance to: Calvin’s dad in the beloved comic Calvin & Hobbes.
If you aren’t familiar with the strip, you need to read its entire 10-year run, but here’s the gist: Calvin is a smart-ass, troublemaking 6-year-old with a big imagination and a best friend, Hobbes, who is the living embodiment of his stuffed tiger toy. Always a disruption at school, Calvin is also a constant headache for his parents at home, especially his father, the target of many pranks and rebellions. Calvin’s dad, however, gets his minor revenge by concocting absurd answers to his son’s searching questions and curiosities.
He is, you would have to say, the ultimate “gonna tell my kids” guy.
From these panels, we might conclude that that Calvin’s dad likes to deflect precocious concern as much as reveling in the opportunity to tell a mostly-still-credulous boy a fun lie. And that must be a crucial ingredient in these dialogues: a reluctance to see your child grow up too fast, combined with an interest in preserving their sense of awe and wonder. On top of it all, as Calvin’s mom points out, dads in particular seem averse to admitting they don’t know something, and more comfortable with fabrication when they don’t have the right answer.
In a different light, however, you might understand this as a decent pedagogical technique. By habitually creating a fog of bad intel, Calvin’s dad is meanwhile teaching him not to rely on bad sources, and even to learn things for himself, from reliable texts and experts. Part of attaining maturity, after all, is the gradual realization that the people who made you can’t always help you.
As time goes on, it’s increasingly difficult to impose these falsehoods on your kids; Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are the first to go. But you enjoy some intellectual authority even as your powers as a moral disciplinarian start to fade, and it’s no wonder a trickster father wants to hang on to this goofy form of superiority for as long as he can. What they probably don’t realize, as my dad did not, is how readily these little fibs become mementoes for their children, who will treasure their whole lives the ways they were tested and teased.
Right now, I swear, I’m studying a nearly empty pint of beer and smiling to myself because… what if it’s evaporating?