I recently did something that I can’t forgive myself for. During a moment of chaos, I barked at my oldest daughter, 9, and told her it was time to grow up. I was trying to get everyone out the door on a Saturday, and there were chores to be done around the house, but she and her sister, 7, were lost in play—despite my urging that they do what’s necessary for us to leave.
I got down on my knees, took her by the shoulders and looked her square in the eyes. “You’re almost 10. It’s time for you to change.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, but I was upset. How many times do you have to tell kids to clean up their rooms or pick up their toys or put their clothes away? Until now, I’d always passed it off as something that parents must just keep repeating, not really expecting anything. And if the child did respond favorably—throw a party. I continued, “Life isn’t all about daydreaming and playing. You have responsibilities. You’ll be out of our house in eight years, and you have to learn to take responsibility for things. And that means less playing and more work. Do you understand me?”
“Ok, Daddy,” she responded—tears welling up in her eyes. Then she turned and walked away.
We ended up getting out of the house on time, and that sober moment was stacked onto the other moments from earlier in the day which was itself stacked upon and then filed away as another day. And yes, she pretty much forgot my message the next day. And for that I’m grateful.
How dare I yank the innocence of daydreaming away from a child? Who am I? I’m a monster, that’s who. A child’s fertile imagination is so much more important than any appointment or commitment that I’ll ever have.
The most beautiful memories I hold of childhood took place in imaginary worlds that few others were even allowed to enter. Places adults couldn’t see, and that any child who’d crossed the threshold of adulthood, whether forced by their parents or in their rush to grow up, were banned from entering.
When I was 10, I was hospitalized for about a week. I remember them shaving my head, putting nodes into my scalp and using big words that I didn’t understand. It turned out that I was having problems because of a teacher at school who caused me so much stress that, well, they had to put me in the hospital with nodes in my scalp. I remember the teacher too—Mr. Criswell. A stone of a man without a smile who demanded attention and who chopped the heads off of children who daydreamed in class. In retrospect, while Mr. Criswell may have helped me become the responsible person I am today, he probably did more damage to my imagination than anyone else.
So here I am—Mr. Criswell. A beast. And to my own children, no less. I really hate being a parent sometimes. Because the truth is, the imagination of a child is so fragile that if we’re not careful we can stamp it out prematurely. Life will do that soon enough—there’s no need to rush it. I consider it a privilege to make a living using my imagination, but lately I’ve used it less and less. Maybe life has finally piled enough shit on that I can’t get to the point where my imagination is free to roam anymore? Except through my children. I really need to focus on being less of a hypocrite and more a steward of the most powerful force on earth. Because we’re only charged with that responsibility for a short while. Then childhood is gone. Sometimes forever.
—Photo Jim Mitchem