We are pulling into the driveway after a long, hot excursion to the park. The air is heavy and the sky is darkening rapidly. On the radio a black mother is telling NPR listeners how she hopes her son will grow up to marry a black woman, and I am musing on the impossibility of a white-skinned mother expressing the same sentiment in polite company, let alone on NPR, when Phoebe abruptly announces, “I don’t want to grow up.”
”You don’t?” I murmur absently, turning off the engine and gathering my things. A hurricane is gathering itself in the car, but I do not yet feel the breeze.
“No, Mummy!” Opening my door, I glance into the backseat and see with surprise that both Violet and Phoebe are sitting absolutely still with tragic, brimming eyes. Outside there’s a roll of thunder, and raindrops start pelting down.
“And I–” Violet bursts out, as if we have been arguing, “I don’t want to grow up either!” She explodes into extravagant tears, her words coming in a tumble: “When-you-grow-up-you-have-to-leave-your-mummy-and-go-away-and-then-you-can’ t-be-with-your-mummy-and-you-want-to-go- home –” Violet pauses for breath and then sobs out, “But you can’t!”
I slip out of the driver’s seat and slide in beside the weeping Littles.
“Darlings, I know–” I say soothingly, groping for the Right Thing to Say. Unfortunately, “darlings, I know,” appears to be inadequate, for if anything the sobbing redoubles.
Then I recall an anecdote retailed by my friend Amy. Three years ago, when her son found a dead robin on the sidewalk, she felt she ought to “validate” his feelings of sadness and “facilitate” his grief, and went so far as to conduct a miniature funeral service. “I thought,” Amy told me, “that listening very carefully and seriously equaled respecting my child’s deepest emotions. Now I think it equals scaring the daylights out of my child.”
“Six months ago,” she went on, “my daughter and I walked past a squashed baby bird on the sidewalk. She was really sad. What did I do? I paused, said in a calm tone, “Death is sad, isn’t it?” and walked on. Guess which child raised the baby bird to talisman level and used it as a bedtime stalling crisis. Guess which child had chicken for dinner that night.”
All this whizzes through my mind in a moment, and I swiftly recover. “I know you think you don’t want to grow up,” I begin heartily, “But you’ll find it’s fun to–”
A heavy and rather sticky person slides over the back of the girls’ seat, partly crushing Violet’s head and mine. It is Paris, and he’s crying too.
“I don’t want to grow up either!” says he in a strangled voice.
“Paris, you’re a little–”
“–But I want to cuddle you–”
“That’s lovely, but–”
“–and I don’t ever want to leave you and Daddy–”
“–honey, you’re squishing–”
Lightening flashes across the gray skies. In the way-way back, over Paris’s waving legs, Molly is reading quietly, secure for the moment in the sunny uplands of the almost-tens. What Violet and Phoebe are discovering as a catastrophe is old terrain for her. Alas, as happens with firstborns, when she had her initial Peter Pan moment she was but a guinea pig being manipulated by an amateur scientist.
“I don’t want to grow up!” Molly had wailed.
“Don’t worry,” I had replied, “By the time you ought to be leaving home you will want to leave home.”
Well, that is no comfort to a six-year-old. It is, in fact, about as deeply wounding to a child’s ardent sense of loyalty as it is possible to get. If you had wanted to see floods of tears, that would have been the time stop by our house.
So with rain pelting down furiously, and three children yodeling out the loss of their childhood, I think fast, and lie.
“Children, you don’t ever have to leave home. You can live with us forever.”
The effect is alchemic. Paris shifts his weight back, and I can breathe again. Violet scrubs her face, and Phoebe tucks those two reassuring fingers into her mouth and looks at me with trusting, saucer eyes.
“Really?” Paris gulps.
“Really,” I say firmly. “When you grow up, we will buy all the houses on our street,” I continue, “and our whole family can all live in them.”
People talk about the amazing resilience of children. People are right. Within a minute, happiness is restored and the children start talking about what they would eat first if our neighborhood was made of candy. Molly tunes in for this. “The cobblestones would be nougat,” she says, “and I would eat six of them. After dinner,” she adds, with a nod to propriety.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle and we are collecting the lunch boxes and book bags and discarded shoes when Paris’ face suddenly lights up. “Hey,” he says, “wouldn’t it be neat if people had clothes made of glass? Then you could see their–”
“Right,” I push past him loudly, “Everyone out of the car.”
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.