Critic’s Corner: Things Jesus (and ‘Peter Pan’) never said: ‘Never grow up!’

Sarah Kaderbek


Sarah Kaderbek“Never grow up!” blazoned on sweatshirts, posters and coffee mugs — and the folks wonder why our generation can’t “adult” today. 

Let me be clear: There is a value in remaining childlike and in laughing at and commiserating over the difficulties of “adulting.” Even more importantly, I am completely in favor of the childlike love, trust and joy demanded by Christ and preached by St. Francis.  

But more often than not, this mantra is taken too far. We are not meant to retain a child’s selfishness, immaturity and irresponsibility. Christ tells us to be like a child, not to never grow up. 

To many of you, it will thus seem counterintuitive when I say that I love “Peter Pan.” “A children’s book about not growing up?” — you might say — “Why don’t you grow up?” That reaction, however, is based upon the Disney cartoon, which is as bad of an adaption as the 1980 animated “The Return of the King.” 

The message of “Peter Pan” is not “never grow up” but rather “please, whatever you do, grow up!” The original play and its novelization, both by J.M. Barrie, were written for adults, not just children, and the philosophy of maturation therein expressed is itself mature. 

Peter is indeed the Boy Who Never Grows Up, but his situation is both fantastical and melancholy. Because of the magic of the Neverland, Peter is kept literally forever young, not just physically but also emotionally, mentally and even morally. However, there are joys from which Peter is thus “for ever barred.” 

Barrie describes how Peter never gains maturity or experience because of his fantastical forgetfulness. He forgets any people, events and concepts which would lead to experience and maturity. But most importantly, Peter never gains moral experience.  

When fighting Hook on Marauder’s Rock, Peter finds himself on the literal high ground, and in the spirit of fairness, he offers Hook a hand up. Hook responds by biting him, and Barrie describes Peter’s reaction: “Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. … Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. … No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter. He often met it, but he always forgot it. I suppose that was the real difference between him and all the rest.” 

Children, according to Barrie, are “gay (joyful) and innocent and heartless,” and Peter thus truly remains all of these things. The tragedy of his situation springs from his heartlessness. Because he never grows up, never has a family, he is incapable of love, especially romantic love. Even though the innocence of childhood is intact, his life is actually incomplete and tragic. 

However, this concept of complete, perpetual childhood is impossible outside of the Neverland. Gaining experience and knowledge, and thus growing up, is inescapable. We cannot simply forget as Peter does. If we attempt to artificially cling to childhood, we ultimately become like Hook, the Man Who Never Grew Up. 

Hook does not belong in the Neverland, but despite his age and stature, he views Peter as an equal opponent. Unlike Peter, he is not truly unaware of moral questions but only ignores them, replacing morality with a childish, maniacal obsession with the schoolboy’s code of “good form.” Hook has lost his joy and innocence and retains only the child’s heartlessness. 

Conversely, Wendy is the Girl Who Grows Up. She loves the Neverland and its magic, but she only wants to visit. She is not completely satisfied by childhood and make-believe but wants to bring her dreams of motherhood and a family into reality. She tries to awaken Peter to the beauties of growing up, but she must return without him and, ultimately, grows up “of her own free will a day quicker than other girls.” 

However, though she matures beyond the child’s heartlessness, Wendy never loses her innocence and joy. She still remembers Peter and the Neverland and passes on this magic to her daughter, Jane. But when Peter returns for her, “She was not a little girl heart-broken about him; she was a grown woman smiling at it all, but they were wet smiles.” Wendy has become a wife and mother; the dreams of the Neverland are now a reality for her. 

This is our call: to retain our innocence, joy and reliance on God even as we grow up; to accept the deeper joys and sacrifices of adulthood rather than flying to the Neverland, away from responsibility and morality; and to cry out, as Barrie advocates, “To live will be an awfully great adventure!”