The other day I observed my five-year-old son gather all of his stuffed animals and take them by armload down the stairs. After his third trip, he stopped in front of me. “You know what I’m doing, Mom?” he asked with excitement in his eyes. “I’m getting animals for the T-Rex. He needs meat!”
Unsure of how to respond, I replied with a vague, “Oh.”
He put his small hand on my cheek as if to comfort me. “Not human meat, Mom. Animal meat. And, it’s just a baby T-Rex.” And then he rushed off to sacrifice more of his animals to his T-Rex.
There has been a shift in pretend play lately. A bit more violence and a bit more reality now creep into the games he plays. It leaves me feeling somewhat sad. My son is leaving the simple pretend games of animal parades and wooden trains, and immersing himself into the world of sword fights and dinosaur battles. As he gets older and starts to realize more about the world around him, things like death, the food chain, and natural disasters are reflected in his play.
My boy has limited patience for make-believe. Instead, he leans toward non-fiction when he selects books at the library. As I read his weekly selection of books from the library, he is like a sponge soaking in all he can. Later, this is reflected in his play. As his four-year-old sister sings and dances her way through Cinderella’s ball, his pretend games involve brutal dinosaur attacks, volcanic eruptions, and wild animal noises.
He is fascinated with the concepts of “bad guys” and wants to know why people do bad things. He has also started to ask questions about death and why people die. I want to ignore his questions, re-direct him, do anything but explain to him that there is bad in the world and that death is inevitable. I don’t want to answer questions that I have a hard time answering myself. Instead, I want to hold him tight and shield his eyes from reality. I want him to grasp that tenuous string connecting him to his childhood naiveté and hold on for dear life.
However, knowledge is inevitable, and as much as I try to shelter him from hearing bad news or watching violence or sadness on television, he craves knowledge of both good and bad. I know I cannot protect him from it forever.
That’s why after weeks of indecision, I finally give in to my husband’s suggestion that we redecorate my son’s room. I know I cannot deny that my boy is growing up. The nursery he slept in as an infant is too babyish for the almost six-year-old boy with skinned knees, long limbs, and a growing collection of dinosaurs.
I slowly run a hand over the pale blue walls. While six months pregnant with my son, I had painted an underwater mural on these walls. Though tired and achy after long days of teaching, I would come home and begin painting friendly sea creatures as I felt my son’s kicks from within my growing belly.
I remember how important it was for me to have everything perfect and in order before my new baby arrived. Little did I know how disorderly and imperfect parenting really is. I also never anticipated how quickly the time seems to go. One day your child is staring up at your face making cooing noises, and the next day he is asking how the food chain works.
With a swipe of orange paint, I cover the purple octopus, the googly-eyed crab, and the friendly fish. In their places, we stick on realistic looking dinosaurs decals. My son goes through their names: “Pentaceratops. Brachiosaurus. Stegosaurus.” He turns to me occasionally and spouts out a fact, “You know, Mom, Stegosaurus could swing his tail and hit enemy dinosaurs.”
“Whoa! That’s tough!” I exclaim as I climb on his bed to stick an ankylosaur to the wall.
He makes sure to add, “But, he didn’t eat other dinosaurs. He was a plant-eater.”
“Well, that’s good,” I reply distractedly. From my vantage point on top of the bed, my brown-haired boy looks much smaller than he actually is. Too small to be growing out of his jeans I just bought him in the fall. Too small to have just registered for kindergarten. As I try to hang up more decals, he stops me. He does not want the meat-eaters on his wall.
Later than night, his first in his newly decorated dinosaur room, he runs into my bedroom crying. He is scared of “creepy things,” so I let him curl against me until he falls back asleep.
This boy who has a question for everything, who wants to know how dinosaurs become bones and how quickly tsunamis can destroy a town, is not quite ready for the answers he receives. He sits on the brink of learning a very painful fact about life: sometimes we really don’t like the answers to the questions we ask.
I hold my precious, dinosaur-loving boy. I smell his hair that I still wash with baby shampoo, and feel the strong beat of his heart against my arm. I know I will not experience these late-night snuggles much longer. Soon, he will be able to comfort himself, and dinosaurs won’t seem as scary in the middle of the night. For now, I will just hold on a little tighter, knowing my boy of endless questions will sleep well tonight.