I watched from the kitchen window as my two boys played in the backyard yesterday. They’re two and five, and they have a love/hate relationship with each other. Well, more like a hug/punch relationship with each other.
They rode around in my older son’s second-hand, red, Power Wheels GMC Denali truck. The five-year-old pushed the two-year-old out the tiny car door into the dirt. The little guy then ran around to push the back of the truck before climbing through the open tailgate into the moving vehicle, skinning his shins along the way. They pushed and shoved and climbed and fell and tackled and took nose-dives in the mud. They had a blast.
I stood bewildered. I wondered if I should step in to, you know, protect my youngest son from imminent danger. But I held back. I wanted to see what they would do on their own. It was slightly off-putting, but also hugely entertaining. I found myself harking back to my own childhood. It was no less messy.
I remember my older brother and I climbing on the construction site of the house next door like it was a jungle gym. I remember falling into the open, unfinished basement and my brother helping me out (and sustaining a nail-in-the-bare-foot injury in the process). I scraped my arm coming up and we both walked home with a slight limp. We were fine. It was amazing. I remember not wearing shoes or socks all summer, and having my mom wash my feet in the sink before she’d let me eat my dinner.
I remember one particularly grisly day when our across-the-street neighbor’s cat brought home a rabbit and a bird and made a bloody show of them all throughout the inside of their garage. Now I shudder at the thought. Back then, we thought it was awesome. We took mental pictures of the scene and hung out in there and looked closely at all the nastiness. We listened to Vanilla Ice on their boom box and ate those push popsicles together without washing our hands.
Kids are gross. Any parent knows this. Small children are oozing with various bodily fluids and the remnants of previously half-eaten meals. But childhood itself is a special kind of nasty, because it holds space for the kind of grossness that kids seek out themselves. And, in my opinion, that’s part of what makes childhood so great.
Now, I edit this appraisal of childhood with an honest depiction of myself: I like a clean house. I “Type A” the heck out of my house. I carry hand sanitizer in the diaper bag, and I wash my kids’ hands like they’re about to perform surgery. But, when they’re outside, it’s a different story. I like to see how dirty they can get. And if they’re both dirty and they’ve incurred (minor) injuries, then I know they’ve had a really great time.
I love to see my dirty, bloody five-year-old run to his buddy’s house down the street. They hit every nearby tree (i.e. the enemy) with sticks, and I avert my eyes as they dig up who-knows-what that they buried the day before. I want them to have these messy adventures because childhood is the time for such things. It’s when we discover what we like and what we don’t like. It’s when we observe the natural world and spend time with other people just because they’re close by.
Sometimes I wish life was still like that. I wish that all my best friends lived in the houses directly surrounding mine. I wish that I could befriend anyone around me who is roughly the same size. I wish I could run around barefooted and dirty and not have to go to a job. (Well, maybe not really. Some days, perhaps.)
What I really wish for is what’s already true: my kids know what it’s like to live among neighbors in a neighborhood. They know where to go to meet their buddies after school, and they can get dirty and bloody and then walk the two minutes to get home. They learn about the world from the safety of this little hamlet. Their friends are their neighbors and vice versa.
I get great joy out of seeing my once-filthy children all cleaned up and bandaged at the end of the night. I like hearing about the butterflies with broken wings that they saved, the treasures they unearthed, and the game-winning passes they completed. But most of all, I like hearing about their neighbor friends. I like knowing that their little world is wrapped up in this block and a half around them.
Childhood is messy. And thank God for that.