Peter Pan has a grown-up social commentary that escapes most kids. Mr. Darling, the adult in the room, is so obsessed with paying for his children that it seems he would not keep them if his checkbook did not balance. In the story, his sad situation is humorous, because we can assume a basis of cultural morality. Of course Mr. Darling would not get rid of the children if he could not afford them! It just seems like he would. Yet, his childish valuation of money over children is truly inexcusable. I cannot find it funny, but in it, I find an important lesson.
Before exploring that lesson further, we should pause and state the obvious: Adults should always carry childhood with us, but we can never be childish. A childish adult would not write a good book, but the best books for children are written by adults who carry childhood with them.
Adults should always carry childhood with us, but we can never be childish.
I carry my childhood with me, but I am not a child. For me, to act like a child would be childish: wrong. Yet I keep the good (and, God help me, some of the bad) from that time. This treasure trove of living memory is one of the great gifts of adulthood.
In contrast, childish adulthood buries its memories of childhood in sin, ugliness, and vice so deeply that innocence cannot be recovered and living memories are forgotten. God help the man whose childhood is reduced to images on a Facebook wall that no longer resonate in his soul. True adulthood feelingly remembers childhood, defends it, and grows.
Let’s return to the story. In it, Peter can be fun because Neverland allowed him to remain a boy. It is sad that he never grew up, but, since he stays a boy, he can still have fun. Mr. Darling’s case is much worse. He never grew up, but he became a man anyway. A childish boy is delightful. But Peter Pan shows us that a childish man is just sad. This is an important insight.
The man who brags about his wealth, his cars, and his women is not an adult. He is childish. He never stopped obsessing about having the most toys and winning. In a quiet way, Mr. Darling is childish in this way. Similarly, the adult who whines about hard things is childish. This person has not escaped running off to parents. As grownups, they demand protection from bullies from the grownups.
A childish boy is delightful. But Peter Pan shows us that a childish man is just sad.
But we have no time for twisted childishness. We want all our time to recollect childhood, learn from our living memories, and grow as adults. We want time to honor our childhood by forming an adulthood that is worthy of it.
Peter Pan slyly offers us a memory of innocence with the gravity of adulthood. It is a wise story, and it is something that Mr. Darling could not have written. His obsession made him forget.
Mastering an innocent adulthood, like Mrs. Darling did, is among the rarest of gifts, and I ask God to help me cultivate it. May I become like Mrs. Darling: better than a child, but still all that a child is. May I not become like Mr. Darling: a child in an adult’s body.