In order to grow up, we must remember childhood.
Peter Pan has a grown-up social commentary that escapes most kids. Mr. Darling is so obsessed with paying for his children that it seems he would not keep the children if his checkbook did not balance. The humor of his sad situation only works because the original audience could assume a comfortable Christian morality. Of course Mr. Darling would not get rid of the children if he could not afford them! It just seems so.
Nobody would have considered, for example, the nasty business of Planned Parenthood, in which a baby that one cannot afford really might die. Today, in a time less innocent to Mr. Darling’s failings, his childish valuation of money over children is inexcusable. I cannot find it funny, but, as an adult learning from a great children’s story, I do find an important lesson.
Before learning anything else from the story, we must pause and state the obvious: we 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.
I almost said “adults who remember their childhood,” until I realized that for most people “memory” is just looking at a static picture or watching a video that Mom took when we were small. Real memory is to “return again to those thrilling days of yesteryear” where “age relives fond memories of the past.” A true memory of the past is a living reality that can be experienced again from the new perspective of age.
The treasure trove of living memory is one of the great gifts of adulthood that children do not yet have.
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) of that time. This treasure trove of living memory is one of the great gifts of adulthood that children do not yet have. False adulthood buries its memories of childhood in sin, ugliness, and vice so deeply that innocence can never be recovered and memories are forgotten. True adulthood feelingly remembers childhood, defends it, and grows. God help the man whose childhood is reduced to images on a Facebook wall that no longer resonate in his soul.
Peter can be fun because Neverland allowed him to remain a boy. It is sad that he never grew up, but he can still have fun. Mr. Darling never grew up, but he became a man. His case is much worse. A childish boy is delightful. A childish man is just sad.
JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was not a great man, but he did do a great thing: as a grown man, he carried a real memory of youth. He could parody the adult world in which he lived precisely because he saw how much of it was childishness, not real adulthood.
Peter Pan slyly pokes a memory of innocence with the gravity of adulthood.
The man who brags of his wealth, his cars, and his women is not an adult. He is childish as he brags about having the most toys and winning. In a quiet way, Mr. Darling is childish like this. Likewise, the person who whines about how people are mean and things are so hard is childish. This person has never escaped running off to parents, never learned to be a parent themselves. As grownups, they demand protection from bullies from the grownups.
But we have no time for twisted childishness. We want all our time to recollect childhood, learn from those memories, and live as adults. Childhood is for the sake of maturity. Adulthood is the fulfillment of childhood.
Peter Pan slyly pokes a memory of innocence with the gravity of adulthood. That is wise, and it is something that Mr. Darling could not have done. 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 as 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.
John Mark Reynolds
John Mark is the Founder of Wheatstone Ministries and of Biola University's Torrey Honors Institute. He is also President and Founder of the St. Constantine School, opening in Houston in 2016. Dr. Reynolds is the author of many books, including When Athens Met Jerusalem: an Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought. He is also a frequent blogger and lecturer on a wide range of topics including ancient philosophy, classical and home education, politics, faith, and virtue.