A FEW nights ago, my 5-year-old son Dan said, "Dad, I want to look cool. How can I look cool?" I gave him the answer I believe: feel good about yourself, do the right thing, don't worry too much about what anyone else thinks of your clothes, hair and looks, and you will be as cool as cool can be. I felt him skeptically weighing my words, and I wondered how much longer he will be willing even to ask me questions like that one.

This year our family will undergo one of our culture's most important, and least-noticed, rites of passage: Our oldest child, our little boy, will enter kindergarten.

Already I feel the steel doors of the culture closing between me and the child we have raised over five years of laughter, tears and sleepless nights. Last year at this time, we could still debate the merits of staying home against day care. Now the law has the final word. For the next two decades or so, we will live by the iron clock and calendar of schools -- bus schedules, fall and Christmas breaks, teacher work days and PTA bake sales.

I feel a touch of exhausted relief; my wife and I, like a pair of tag-team wrestlers, may now get some help from teachers and the state. Mixed with that, though, is a submerged, stubborn anger. As the education bureaucracy begins its relentless demands, I wonder where it was when we were struggling to find good day care and pediatricians, baby-sitting and advice. We found most of what we needed by trial and error and sheer blind luck. If 5-year-olds are so important, why do our institutions so shamefully neglect preschoolers and their parents?

Second, I feel a kind of violation: This most protected member of our family (he's not even allowed to speak to strangers) must now enter the public world, to be tested, judged, written about and disciplined by people none of us have ever met. That's painful and scary. But at the same time I realize that it is healthy for all concerned to live in a place and time where children are no longer considered their parents' business only. None of us has the wisdom and strength to raise a child alone; what happens to children concerns us all. And some of our country's saddest crimes occur because neighbors and institutions are too respectful of a family's grim isolation.

Third, I feel sympathy for those who have agreed, in exchange for little pay and less respect, to teach my child and others like him. We Americans expect them to solve our race and drug problems and to train our children to beat the Japanese, but we scorn them as loser-dropouts from the big-bucks grownup world. We issue report after report blaming teachers for the nation's ills, and then we wonder why our children don't respect them. I couldn't teach kindergarten if the fate of humanity depended on it; I am glad so many good people can.

Lastly, I fear the culture Dan will be thrown into -- that '80s-America mix of rock videos, TV cartoons, mock-violence, competitiveness, consumerism and hothouse sexuality our children take with them to school. Americans have made a toxic-waste dump out of what once was called childhood. Dan's mother and I have tried to give him a few years of innocence; I fear that they are at an end.

Soon Dan will be judging for himself what is "cool" or not, using a mix of peer pressure, media stereotypes, school lessons and his own good sense. If he's like most of us, he will waste precious years before he learns to trust his instincts and his luck and to ignore those who demand that he live by their irrelevant ideals.

Even if I could protect him -- educate him at home, make sure no one bullies or disappoints or deceives him, sort out the cultural garbage from the gold -- I wouldn't. He must make his own decisions and collect his own scars. Each child must live in his or her own times, and Dan's are now beginning, which is, in itself, an poignantly unmistakable sign that mine will someday end.

From now on, more and more, my role will be to watch. Like a well-wisher on the dock after the brave boat has put out to sea, I can wave and weep and send a father's blessing. Goodbye, little boy -- the first of many farewells. And good luck to you. You'll need it.

Garrett Epps is the author of "The Floating Island: A Tale of Washington."