In light of another retelling, I’ve been thinking about why the story has such enduring appeal for kids — and former kids, which is to say everyone. Besides the razzle-dazzle of fairies and mermaids and hook-handed pirates, I think the appeal stems from the universal truths Peter Pan reveals about being a kid. They are simple but powerful truths, and it’s useful, as a parent, to be reminded of them.
All kids imagine running away. That’s not always a bad thing. A few months ago, while visiting my husband’s parents in the Tennessee mountains, my 7-year-old disappeared. She’d been galloping through the house with her 5-year-old cousin and we were so relieved when peace and quiet descended that it took us a few minutes to realize that peace and quiet was probably a bad sign. We tore through the house, peering under the bed, throwing open closet doors. We scanned the backyard and the front yard, too. After what felt like an eternity, my husband found our daughter’s Harry Potter backpack under her favorite tree at the bottom of the gravel road leading to the house. , barefoot and content, was my daughter and her cousin.
“Oh, hi, guys,” she greeted us, smiling. “Look at this enormous stick I found!”
“You’re barefoot!” I exclaimed, because sometimes, as a parent, you miss the forest for the trees.
“Yeah,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Don’t you just want to be wild sometimes, Mom?”
It was one of those rare moments in parenting where your child expresses a thought with such clarity that all that was inscrutable suddenly makes sense. In this moment, I was reminded of something I hadn’t thought about in a long, long time. I had run away, too, when I was just about her age. Or tried to, at least.
I remember there was a reason, but I can’t remember what it was. Likely, it was because my parents wouldn’t let me watch “The Incredible Hulk,” or maybe because they made me eat lentils. I hated lentils.
At first, the idea of running away was a lark, but the more I thought about it, the more alluring it seemed. I wouldn’t have to go to school. I could watch daytime TV — “All My Children” and “Password.” Lentils would be a thing of the past.
So I hatched a plan. I would sleep over my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, and under the cover of darkness, I’d fashion a rope from bedclothes, toss it out the second-story window and head to my best friend Sarah’s house. Her closet would be my base of operations. And that’s where my plan ended. The whole point, really, was to have no plan. The whole point was that anything could happen.
Decades later, as I stood staring at my barefoot daughter, I had the exact thought. Anything could happen. The difference was that the “anythings” I was thinking of as a mother were exclusively catastrophic. Her “anythings” were exciting.
My daughter got a bit farther in her adventure than I did. On the appointed night, when I called Sarah to let her know it was go-time, she told me that she’d run our plan by her mom, and her mom was not on board.
“But you’re welcome to sleep over,” Sarah offered cheerfully.
I didn’t want a sleepover. I wanted to fly out windows. I wanted to fraternize with mermaids, conspire with princesses, battle pirates. I wanted to believe in fairies, even possessive, spiteful ones.
It’s no coincidence that Wendy takes off for Neverland on her last night in the nursery. She can see what’s coming, and it does not look fun. Maybe she knows that “anything can happen” will soon become a thought to be feared, rather than embraced. Maybe she just wants to be wild.
Adulthood weighs you down. As grown-ups, we are bound by responsibility, anchored by reason and, especially as parents, weighed down by anxieties — pandemics and elections, gun violence and terrorism and ice caps melting.
Some might say being a grown-up is harder than ever. But I think being a grown-up is exactly as hard as it’s always been. When J.M. Barrie was an adult, World War I raged, killing two of his adoptive sons. His mother had an even harder adulthood — one that began when she was 8, when her mother died and she had to assume household responsibilities. She lost one of her young sons, a tragedy that irrevocably marked not just her life but Barrie’s as well. It was, in part, his dead breather’s arrested development that inspired Barrie’s creation of the boy who never grew up.
It’s no wonder Wendy wants to hatch an escape from all of that. It’s no wonder my daughter and I did, too.
Even as they crave freedom, kids crave the ties that bind. As soon as Wendy sets foot in Neverland, the Lost Boys, the wildest of the wilds-at-heart, crown her Mother. They’ve been in desperate need of one, and they are thrilled and relieved to have someone to tuck them into bed, make them bathe, teach them right from wrong, insist on manners. Peter, for one, has been longing for bedtime stories. And acting as mother to the Lost Boys sparks in Wendy a longing for her own parents, who she fears won’t leave the window open for her return if she waits too long.
And so Wendy trades in eternal youth and freedom and adventure to take her place in the great, unchanging cycle of life, in which she will grow up and become a mother, and maybe turn a blind eye when her own daughter takes a pixie dust joyride.
It’s why, I think, my daughter seemed genuinely happy when my husband and I caught up with her on the gravel road. It had only been 10 minutes, 15 at most, but it had given her what she needed. And, just like Wendy, she was ready to come home.
Nicole C. Kear is the author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel, “Foreverland,” out in April from Imprint. Her other books include The Fix-It Friends series and, co-written with Brian Weisfeld, “The Startup Squad,” as well as a memoir for adults, “Now I See You.”
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