Ice cream and existentialism with my 5 year old

icecream1While walking Lily to a nearby ice cream parlor for an after-dinner cone this evening, her words took me by surprise twice.

Once, because I heard a sentence I might utter, word-for-word, coming out of her mouth.

Let me back up for a second. Lily had been a couple of months overdue for her annual check-up, and Neve was due for one as well, so I made a dual appointment for them at the pediatrician’s this afternoon. Weirdly, they assumed each other’s personas when the doctor arrived in the exam room: Neve was a distracted, restless chatterbox, and Lily became watchful, quiet and serious. (It was a bit like “Freaky Friday,” with both body-changers being kids.)

Because I’d noted this, I asked Lily, on the way to get ice cream, “You seemed nervous at the doctor’s office. Were you scared of getting shots?”

Lily nodded, and then, she added, “Well, I wouldn’t say I was nervous. I was more” – she paused as she considered her word options – “concerned.”

Oh. My. God. It was like she’d turned 32 in front of my eyes. (Which was only too fitting, given the conversation that followed.)

I was reeling a bit from this little-sage pronouncement when she followed up with, “I wish babies could stay babies.”

“Really? Babies are cute, but think of Nevie. Now that she’s a toddler, she can talk to you, and she can play with you a lot more than when she was a baby.”

“Then I wish toddlers could stay toddlers. And that I could stay the way I am, and you and Daddy could stay the way you are.”

“Well, that’s understandable. A lot of people wish they could freeze time and just stay in a moment. But that must mean you’re happy, which is good. And we are, too. This is a fun time – for you and Nevie, but for me and Daddy, too.”

She grew quiet a minute, then said, “I just want us to stay like we are. I don’t want to grow up.”

This, I get, I thought. Even though I had been one of those kids who’d been itching and yearning to be an adult from the get-go, the actual experience of adulthood – the endless responsibilities, the stress, the routine of workaday life – reminds me of why the Peter Pans of the world resist it so much.

“Why don’t you want to grow up?” I asked Lily.

“Because I don’t want to die.”

Hmm. OK.

Now what, Mom? I couldn’t lie to her, but I didn’t want to play Grim Reaper to my child’s innocence, either.

“Well, that’s understandable,” I said. “No one really wants to die. And so a lot of people worry about that.” Where am I going with this? “But many people live a long, long time. You know how it felt like forever between your birthday last year and this year? Great Grandma Ruth lived through that much time 95 times.”

These were the best terms I could come up with for translating life span to a 5 year old. But judging by Lily’s expression, the logic wasn’t sinking in. 95 is a concept not yet wholly clear to her – I might as well have said 267, for all she really gets a tangible sense of bigger numbers – so I took a different tack.

“And besides, there’s some pretty great things about growing up. You get to learn lots of things, and meet amazing people, and do more and more stuff on your own. You’ll learn to drive a car, and you’ll go to college and decide what you want to do, and you’ll travel – there are some really wonderful things about growing up.”

(I stopped myself from mentioning staying up late as an enticement, since Joe and I try to make this sounds as unglamorous as possible – a time when we do nothing but work. This is sometimes true, of course, but mostly, it’s the little sliver of time that is our own each day. And we do not want that messed with.)

In the way of 5 year olds, Lily heard me out, then abruptly switched the subject to her day at preschool, and what they did on their park field trip.

But because she’d raised such a big topic, and I feared this might be a real source of anxiety for her, I kept circling back.

“You know, when I was a little girl, I worried about the same things,” I told her, as we sat at a table eating our ice cream cones. “It’s scary. But if we worry about things all the time, we don’t get to enjoy the time we do have.”

Lily, meanwhile, started talking about who she’d invite to an end-of-summer backyard kiddie pool party we’d talked about planning.

I wondered then if my voice had started sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher in her ears, and whether she was thinking, “Mom, let it go. Seriously.”

But I couldn’t help myself. So I made a couple more gestures to talk about her fears throughout the evening; she seemed pretty much done with the topic, though. And when I told Joe about it later, he said, “She seemed fine. She was her happy little self when I put her to bed.”

As with so many situations in parenting, the kid easily seemed to let go of what the adult couldn’t. (Exhibit A: here I am, unable to sleep at 2 in the morning, writing about this incident.)

The talk did get me thinking, though, that parenting (like writing and teaching) is something that forces you to push through difficult questions. You may not find an answer, but when you have to explain something on your own terms, and break things down into their simplest components, you inevitably re-examine your own perspectives. (This happened, too, when I found myself trying to explain Newtown to Lily when she wanted to bring a cap gun for show and tell a week after the tragedy.)

Your beliefs are either validated and reinforced anew, or, before you say the words aloud, you think, “Now that I think about it, that doesn’t really jibe.”

Both outcomes have value. And the big questions are the ones we inevitably have to visit and re-visit in different times in our lives; they’ll just look a little different each time we confront them.

Sometimes, they assume the appearance of a long-haired five year old girl, in a butterfly t-shirt and a gingham skort, who’s eating blue ice cream.

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