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Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson

Posted: January 19, 2011 09:41 AM

I hadn't heard the crunch of wheels approaching. My 3-year-old granddaughter did and ran to her mommy, hugging her leg tight as the rusty pick-up truck roared by on the isolated dirt road. She had been taught to be careful of traffic, especially since her rural community has so little of it.

My daughter stroked her small head and said, "Don't be afraid. After all, what's Mommy's job?" My granddaughter, alarm melting to relief, said, "To keep me safe!" Liking jobs too, and wondering what she might say, I asked her, "So, what's my job?"

Without the slightest hesitation she turned to me, grinned, and said, "To keep me silly."
At that moment I knew I had grown up after many, many years of false starts. I was 56.

As a small boy I was fascinated with grown up handwriting and I filled yellow legal pads with page after page of swirling lines. When viewed with a squint from a respectable distance those pages were as profound as my father's drafts of philosophical journal articles. It seemed very, very grown up.

I felt grown up power in the Roy Rogers six shooters that now stare comically at me from the faded photographs in family albums. I owned a BB gun and shot a bird when I was 9. I sobbed for hours. I felt quite grown up in Army basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, where growing up included crawling under angry bursts of machine gun fire. I became an Army Officer at 20 and felt quite grown up with my gold 2nd Lieutenant bars. I didn't know then what I know now, which is that the grown-ups went to Canada or jail in protest of the immoral war in Vietnam.

I got married, had two children and learned to tie neat Windsor knots to look more grown up. I was ambitious enough to get jobs with long titles and wide offices. I owned houses in the suburbs, cut the lawn, barbecued and drove a Volvo. By the time I reached 56 years old I had passed every signpost I once thought signified "grown up." Little did I know that the last sign reads, "To keep me silly!"

I knew as a small child that too many people take themselves too seriously. I just forgot. All of the trappings of so-called maturity are warning signs. Take the quip attributed to Winston Churchill (please!): "If you are not a liberal at the age of 20 you have no heart, if you are not a conservative by the age of 40 you have no brain." Perhaps nothing more aptly summarizes the suffocating, conventional way of viewing maturity.

The implication is that growing up is to become pragmatic, cynical and dull. No wonder Churchill was a drunk! Such a view of human existence is dreadfully depressing. He was partly right. If you are not a liberal at age 20 you have no heart. But if you are inflexibly conservative at age 40 you might be losing whatever heart you once had. And if you are a Tea Party conservative by age 60 you've lost your mind and perhaps your soul too.

There are many forces at work to pummel children into grown-up submission and we grown-ups need to counter them.

Little girls are adrift in images of women as anorexic call girls and little boys are told to fight when they should be allowed to cry. Too many teachers treat humor like a disease. Kids' remarkable young brains, capable of creative flights of fancy and originality, are conditioned by repetitive algorithms and smothered by conventional wisdom. Idealism is deemed childish. Their world, which is vividly real, is dismissed as they are reminded about how things are in the "real world," an imaginary place invented by adults to excuse their own selfish or aggressive behavior.

I look around and see the consequences of "growing up." Cul de sacs everywhere are choked with striving adults who have forgotten how to play. Boys with Roy Rogers six shooters grow up to be Dick Cheney. Seven million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died because of self-delusional grown-ups.

As the head of a school in Manhattan I often speak to anxious parents seeking admission to pre-school. I often begin by asking them what qualities they most admire in others. The list is always the same: humor, creativity, passion, compassion, originality, modesty... You get the idea. I then ask them to reflect on why it is that many of society's institutions, including schools, not only fail to nurture, but actively discourage the development of these qualities.

My granddaughter is 10 now. She jokes that I am her 12-year-old cousin, which I regard as a real compliment. Ten-year-olds and 12-year-olds are brimming with enthusiasm, capable of great compassion, funny, spontaneous, indignant at injustice, and endlessly imaginative. Everyone's job should be to keep as much of this alive as possible in children, despite the forces that will conspire to grow them up.

I intend to do my small part, which is to keep my granddaughter silly. So far it's going quite well.


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