Recently, a dear friend -- we're godparents to each other's elementary-age kids -- treated my son and me to dinner. With school expenses looming, we decided that dinner should be inexpensive.
My son Skye, 8, had other plans. Picking up the menu, he quickly bypassed the lower-priced children's offerings and scanned the adult fare.
"Honey," I said, sensing I was already too late, "tonight you're ordering from the kids' menu. It has good stuff on it."
Skye stared at me. "But I don't want to order from the kiddie menu," he said.
"But it has fried clams!" I persisted.
"It doesn't have steak," he countered before pulling out his big gun. "Daddy never makes me order from the kiddie menu."
My jaw tightened. "But tonight's dinner is a treat from your godmommy, and I think we should save money."
Skye pointed at the menu. "The surf-and-turf is only $21.95," he said calmly.
Of course, twenty-two bucks is nothing to a fourth-grader who's never paid for a meal -- or even paid attention to the cost of one. His tone couldn't have sounded more reasonable.
So why didn't my jaw unclench?
In the weeks that followed, Skye's response became a catch phrase for his godmother and me. Now, when life urges us to accept less -- for me to embrace one salon's $20 pedicure over another's more luxurious $35 version; for her to smile indulgently at her date's offer to help bring in the groceries after she's already hauled them inside -- we have a ready, just-between-us response:
"But I don't want to order from the kiddie menu."
Who does? Who craves the merely acceptable? We want the best -- in entertainment, services, in response to having given our best. We want the filet mignon. The jumbo shrimp. Not the grilled cheese.
Kiddie menus serve a purpose. But for many people, they just don't cut it.
I remembered Skye's kiddie-menu moment after hearing about Bill Cosby's most recent controversial comments about black folks. On Wednesday at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation conference, the entertainer picked up where he left off several weeks ago. During a recent celebration of Brown v. Board of Education, he called some black youths "knuckleheads" who "can't speak English."
This time, Cosby, his jaw no doubt clenched, targeted parents who have "dirty laundry," including mothers who bring home "three different men in the course of about 12 years." A child who witnesses such a mother "being battered, then making love to the man," Cosby said, is "scarred forever."
Well, sure. Because life is complex, Cosby can be right -- and awfully simplistic -- at the same time. Others on the panel, "Educational Apartheid in the U.S.," quickly cited additional sources of the black community's problems; Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman criticized the erosion of federal support for public education and cited drug houses that remain open long after churches and schools are closed.
The whole world listens when a respected African American comic castigates black underachievers. Yet few acknowledge the many black folks who over-perform, working harder, later and longer at their jobs because they were taught that if you're black, you should be better. Not because society requires it, but because your excellence honors those who died for your right to compete at all.
But human nature focuses on what doesn't work. Many black folks privately question our own institutions: The historically black college whose new buildings impress visitors but whose outmoded infrastructure frustrates paying parents. The prestigious accounting firm whose corporate clients get kid-glove treatment while the Average Jamals it serves can't get a return call. They question the black entertainment media that encourages an inordinate number of kids to become basketball stars, hip-hop moguls and movie stars.
Remembering Skye, I wondered: Could the mother Cosby cited, like the society that spawned her, think she deserves less? Could the ancestors of slaves -- men and women whose backbreaking toil was unpaid and unacknowledged -- somehow regard effort that's invisible, unheralded and in the background as the work equivalent of "the kiddie menu"? As less worthy than life's more glamorous and higher-profile offerings?
A disproportionate number of black youngsters, regardless of their economic level, underperform on standardized tests. Such tests have certain cultural biases. Psychologists have proved that youngsters who assume they'll do poorly on exams will likely fulfill that expectation. Studious black children who are denigrated for "acting white" might undermine their own performance.
Could black kids increasingly see academia's hard work as a kiddie-menu option? As something that the cool, the sophisticated -- the ones who matter -- should disdain?
I only know that after a few more jaw-clenching exchanges, Skye understood that the kiddie menu's prices, not offerings, were the issue. He promptly located an identically priced "grown-up" option -- an $8 crab dip -- and happily ordered it.
Life, like a children's menu, imposes limits -- which human beings of every age and shade naturally resist. Black Americans' ancestors found walls everywhere they turned. With sweat, brains and creativity, they scaled them -- and the entire nation was the better for it.
Today, our limits are often different. But overcoming them can still make us better. Loudmouths such as Cosby -- who puts his millions where his mouth is through donations to black colleges and causes -- challenge us to rethink our limited, kiddie-menu mentality. And, to surmount it.
Like many working-class kids, I rarely saw a menu as a child. My middle-class 8-year-old -- blessed in ways that his ancestors, and less-fortunate kids a few blocks away, never dreamed -- has seen a hundred. Enough to believe that menus, like life, should be limitless. Faced with one that was restrictive, he respected its purpose and got around it.
As I said, he's lucky. But even Cosby might have approved.