"The Perfect Age"

For all the people they've been, and all the ones yet to come

One thing you eventually learn as a parent is that your children will often—whether you like it or not—reflect your personality back at you.

If you’re a high-strung person, you’re liable to end up with high-strung kids. If you’re a detail-oriented person, odds are your kids will be, too. And if you’re a shameless sentimentalist, well, there’s a pretty darn good chance that rubs off on them, too.

I found this last one out the hard way a few nights ago.

My oldest turned six this past weekend, a milestone that utterly confounds me mathematically, as I clearly recall him being born three and a half weeks ago. He swears it’s true, though, and the fact that he’s able to do with verbal clarity lends some credence to his case. I remain skeptical, but I don’t know why he’d lie about it.

[NOTE: For the purposes of the story I’m about to tell, I will refer to my son and daughter as Monkey and Panda, respectively, borrowing the names of their most-treasured stuffed animals; though I frequently share stories involving the kids here, I feel their identities are their own and not mine to share in that way.]

For weeks, my wife and I have been encouraging our son’s giddy anticipation of his birthday by waxing sentimental about how big our no-longer-a-baby-boy has gotten.

“I’m going to miss five-year-old Monkey, he’s a pretty awesome dude!”

“I’m going to need more hugs from five-year-old Monkey, because he gives the best hugs!”

“I can’t believe we’ve only got [six/five/four/three/etc] more days of five-year-old Monkey!”

He’s happily giggled along with this routine, both because of the implication that he will soon be a Big Boy, with all the rights, privileges and honors appertaining thereunto, and because he’s still at the age where stuff like this from his parents strikes him as charming and not just horrifyingly embarrassing.

We failed to realize, as we often do, that we were sowing the seeds of a disaster.

The weekend leading up to his birthday was a perfect summer tableau. The weather was warm and sunny without being too humid. We splashed at the pool, ate hot dogs off the grill, littered the patio with an impressive carpet-bombing of Pop-Its, shared laughs and hugs with visiting grandparents, and basked in his eager anticipation of the birthday cake and Legos sure to be coming his way.

On Sunday night (the night before his birthday, because he once spent the entirety of a 4th of July just hanging around not being born, only to enter the world a few minutes after midnight) we sat on a picnic blanket on the front lawn, watching as neighbors in all directions launched an impressive array of amateur fireworks into the night sky. The kids were up far past their bedtimes, but rules don’t apply on holidays, and you sure don’t go to bed early when the sky’s on fire outside.

The night eventually wound down; the last sparklers were extinguished, scattered toys gathered from the lawn, the dog coaxed out of her hiding place. As we attempted to tuck two now-deeply-exhausted children in to their beds, our daughter, only a year and change younger than her brother, suddenly broke into a river of tears.

“I don’t want five-year-old Monkey to go away! I love him!”

We chuckled sympathetically at first, thinking that this was going to be an easily-resolved misunderstanding. Quickly, however, we realized that all that sentimental waxing we’d been doing in the run-up to his birthday had thrown her into a full-fledged existential crisis (one surely compounded by being up past her bedtime). It took a good half hour of calm-voiced reassurances that no, your brother is going to be the same person tomorrow, he’s not going away before she eventually gave up and passed out, which is as much resolution to any argument as a parent can ask for.

Of course, parenting often resembles a cruel game of Whack-A-Mole, so by the time Panda was soothed and settled, Monkey had decided that she had made some pretty good points, and had become tearfully despondent himself.

“I’m not turning six! Nope. I’m not going to do it.”

We attempted to address it on several fronts—noting that we were just being silly in the way we’d phrased things, reminding him of all the wonderful things that awaited him as a six-year-old, and occasionally quietly peppering in the fact that he would, in fact, turn six whether he liked it or not. (Just ask Daddy how he felt about turning thirty-nine.) I reminded him that six years prior, on a night much like this one, he’d resisted turning zero so long the doctors had to go get him, something that finally elicited a reluctant giggle through the tears.

Our second Peter Pan crisis of the night finally petered out like the first, and we slunk away quietly, battered but victorious. It had taken the better part of an hour, and a whole host of rhetorical tools, but we’d finally convinced them to let him grow up.

I just hadn’t convinced myself.

What I couldn’t tell the kids—what I can’t tell them—is that I go through this argument every day. I’m constantly fighting the feeling of wanting to preserve them in amber forever, of wanting to keep them just as they are today. It’s become a sort of household joke, save for the fact that it’s utterly true: I claim frequently and with utter sincerity that the kids are at “the perfect age right now”, something I’ve been saying since ever since they were six months old.

(Under six months old is not the perfect age. New parents: I swear it gets better.)

When Monkey was just a tiny baby, a friend’s mother commented to me that “the best time in your life is when your kids are young”, and that’s stuck with me for years since, because—unlike all the previous times I’d been told that I was living my best years—it’s actually proven to be true. (It sure as hell wasn’t high school.) Witnessing childhood firsthand is to be gifted the chance to live it a second time, seeing the joy and wonder and magic of the world through fresh eyes, unjaded and and unsullied by the callousness of adult thought. It is special, and it is fleeting.

Or rather, it is special because it is fleeting.

I am doing my best to help shape them into the kind of people I think they should be—the kind of person that I wish I was—but even at their still-young ages, that is increasingly no longer up to me. From the moment that they took their first steps, spoke their first words, cast their eyes to the world outside our arms, their personalities have been detaching from ours, growing and evolving from simple reflections of their parents into people all their own, people who will dream and dare and do things I could never even imagine.

Five-year-old Monkey gave way to his successor at the stroke of midnight, just as was foretold. I will miss him with every fiber of my heart, just as I miss every prior iteration of these children that has come and gone. I miss four-year-old Monkey digging holes in the yard, and three-year-old Panda riding on my shoulders when her legs would tire out three houses into a neighborhood walk. I miss two-year-old Monkey pronouncing banana as “lublubluh” and knowing exactly what he meant, and I miss one-year-old Panda falling asleep in grocery carts, stretched across a winter coat laid out like a blanket. I miss my little three-month-old babies that looked like sandbags and hedgehogs; I miss being the only one who could calm three-week-old Panda by holding her and bouncing on my heels until my calves burned. I miss the terror I felt the first time I ever laid eyes on Monkey and realized I was responsible in part for a whole tiny person.

I miss all of those people, people who needed me more than they need me now, and people who will need me even less tomorrow. I want to hold each of them in my arms forever, but I know I can’t.

I’ll hold them in my heart instead, and leave my arms outstretched for the new ones yet to come.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)