Fighting Peter Pan
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Like most people I know, the Urban Man is never sure he wants to be an adult—and of course, growing up has never had such a bad rap.
Today I'm at a kid's birthday party in a Beverly Hills park. It has a Peter Pan theme, and a crowd of eight-year-olds run happily with little green hats and cardboard swords.
We adults rush to serve them mounds of junk food and we tie balloons—but we do not look happy. Instead, I see us envying our children's childhood: the irresponsibility, the sense of timeless disregard.
And suddenly I have to ask, "Once upon a time, wasn't it the other way round? Wasn't there a time when children envied adults? Didn't they want to dress like us, talk like us? When did that get reversed?
The birthday boy wears the full green Peter Pan outfit, and just now he puts his hands on his hips to strike the classic pose. His mother snaps a picture, and says, "If only he'd stay like that forever."
I nod because it's the common thing to say. I mean, every movie, every song, urges us "to never grow up." Adults now read children's books, play their games, watch their cartoons, wear their clothing, fill our lives with toys. Certainly, on TV, it has long been normal for grown men to act like kids: Seinfeld. Drew Carey. Homer Simpson. Each boy-man spoiled and petulant, but ever graced with a charming innocence.
Lately, I notice it has become taboo even to speak of the "ignorance of children," the "disrespect of children," or the "triviality of children." In fact, as experts note, it's adult life that's most often portrayed as trivial and foolish, while every act of youth is granted deep weight, every child credited with a secret wisdom.
People like to say "kids these days grow up fast," but it's not true. In the 19th century they often took apprenticeships at 7, left home at 13. The MacArthur Foundation says that "adolescence" now runs until about age 34. After 34, I suppose, there's that short nasty serious bit. Then we retire as quickly as possible so we can enjoy irresponsibility again until we die.
If we keep at it, we may eliminate adulthood completely. We may all become Peter Pan.
And you may ask, why not? Surely, play is the best medicine. Surely, childlike wonder the best wonder. Surely, as Rod Stewart sang, we should all be blessed to stay "forever young."
The original Peter Pan was written during a great sea-change in American culture, when people started having less kids and doting on them more. All the classics were penned around that time: The Secret Garden, Treasure Island.
In the original, however, Peter himself was not nearly so nice as he's painted now. In the original, he was selfish, fell into peevish funks, and thought everything a game—even life and death. He sacrificed Lost Boys on a whim. He was so narcissistic, that when they were flying to Neverland, he sometimes forgot that Wendy and the others even existed, and they would begin to fall.
Here at the party, as the birthday boy runs back into the frey, I am tempted to chase after him. In fact, I'd like to find my own kid and say:
"You know, despite what you've heard, adulthood does offer more than hassle. I'd like you to know that adult wonder often exceeds childhood wonder, and adult wisdom often exceeds childhood wisdom. In fact, things learned late at night when one turns forty and no doubt eighty have a beauty different and sometimes unequaled by truths revealed at 8 or even 18. Listen: despite what you've been told by Hollywood, you should want to grow up, and when you do, you may still get the chance to fly. "
But it's time for cake. All the lost boys crowd in, and as Peter Pan blows out the candles, the Urban Man knows just what they're wishing for.
Copyright © 2008 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. I am indebted to several sources for ideas and background on this piece. They make good reading:
- Frank Furedi's excellent essay on the Youth Syndrome
- Marcel Danesi: Forever Young: The Teenaging of American Culture, University of Toronto Press 2003
- Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steve Mintz, Belnap Press, 2006
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