Ryan held the book up for his friend to see.
“Look at this,” he breathed excitedly. “It’s called Charlie Brown Halloween. AND I have the movie. We could watch it.”
He’d been excited about this play date for the past 24 hours, which, for a 4-year-old, is akin to 24 years.
His friend, who is Ryan’s elder by six months, sighed impatiently.
“That Charlie Brown guy is for babies,” he schooled him.
Ryan stood still, a blank look on his face. I watched his confusion grow as he suggested they play dinosaurs instead. Then cars, then Barrel of Monkeys.
The response was the same each time: “I don’t play with baby toys.”
With each comment, I drew in another sharp breath. This can’t happen yet, I thought. It’s too soon.
I thought I had more time. I thought I had at least months or—I’d hoped—years before this would start. Before Ryan’s babyish innocence would be slowly and matter-of-factly chipped away, one peer-inflicted comment at a time.
I felt helpless to stop it, even as I proclaimed that dinosaurs aren’t for babies because they’re big and they roar, as I redirected the conversation over and over.
The time of total innocence is so brief. The window between when they’re old enough to have their own individual interests but too young to understand the concept of being cool passes so quickly.
The next hour crawled by as I tried to shield Ryan’s feelings while his friend told him he didn’t like the Halloween window clings Ryan had picked out and so meticulously stuck to our dining rooms windows, as the friend all but rolled his eyes as I flipped through Ryan’s movie collection: Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians, Little Mermaid…strike, strike, strike.
For me, it’s one of the scariest parts of raising a child. The possibility (the fact?) that my child will be influenced by his friends. That the boy who has loved dinosaurs practically since he took his first breath might one day pack them away simply because he becomes embarrassed by them.
I know he has to grow up, and I know his interests will change. But, like every other parent, I so desperately want it all to happen on his own terms and in his own time.
I want to draw him in closer, to hold him still in this moment in time. A time when he still smiles to himself while he watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, still plucks his favorite board books from his bookshelf to read at night, still carries a fluffy pink frog and a worn yellow blanket around the house with him.
It is becoming clear, though, that I can no longer control all the toys and games and shows he is exposed to. Now that he’s in preschool, he is making his own friends, developing a life outside of my arms.
Finally, with 30 minutes left in the play date, I offered my last resort, something I knew they would agree on: their iPads. After a brief dispute over who got to use a flowered pillow (the friend finally gave it to Ryan because “flowers are for girls anyway”), they settled in with their games.
Ryan clicked on the PBS Kids app to watch clips from his favorite cartoons; his friend began building an impressively tall dynamite tower in Minecraft.
When my husband, Mike, came home from work, I relayed the story, close to tears and suddenly worried about the next 15 years worth of peer pressure and whether Ryan would be a leader or a follower. Whether he’d do irresponsible things simply to fit in.
“He’s a strong, opinionated boy,” Mike said. “He’s going to do what he wants to do, not what others tell him to do.”
Later that night, Ryan wrapped his arms around my legs, raised a hopeful face to look me in the eyes and whispered, “Can I watch Charlie Brown?”
I shut my eyes briefly in relief. One more day; I had at least one more day.
“Yes, you may,” I told him. “I love Charlie Brown, too; let’s watch it together.”