We had just gone swimming at the local indoor pool. My seven-year-old son and I were in the changing room after our shower when I pulled out the clean clothes I had brought for him.
"Here you go!" I tossed a pair of Bob the Builder briefs to him.
"What? Did you bring those? I don't wear those any more! I'm too big for them," he emphatically declared.
With no other options, however, he could be persuaded to put the offensive, presumably too-tight underwear on. Later that evening as I folded the laundry, I thought to ask him if any of his other underwear was getting too small.
"What do you mean, too small? Which undies are getting too small?" he wondered.
"Well, you know, you said the Bob the Builder undies were too small today," I reminded him.
"Mom, I said I was too big, not that they were too small, " he explained with the patience of a mother talking with an errant teen. "I don't wear Bob the Builder any more."
Oh. Had I missed something? Granted, these were the same Bob the Builder underwear he had received as a gift from his grandmother when he was three. They had been much too big then for his slender little body. Although he had recently turned seven, he could still easily fit in clothes I thought he would outgrow years ago. Up to now, he had pretty much worn whatever he pulled out of the drawer, without much fuss about color, style or pattern. I thought he neither cared about nor noticed what he was wearing. In fact, he often seemed to prefer to be as naked as possible at home.
But this refusal of his Bob the Builder underwear was not really about clothing comfort or favorite colors, I realized. It was all about getting bigger and all about what he thought was appropriate for his seven-year-old self.
I have never been much for babying my two boys and have always tried to treat them with the respect they deserve. At the same time, I have not wanted them to grow up too quickly, yet growing up quickly is exactly what they are doing--or at least what all the other kids seem to be doing. My boys still listen to ABBA while one of their friends brags about the two heavy metal concerts she attended last summer. After much begging on their part and much consideration on my part, my boys were finally allowed to watch Star Wars I last month, while friends seem already to have outgrown it. My boys are only beginning to check out the Lego site online, but many of their friends are already internet-savvy. When I recently asked my boys to go through their video collection to pull out the films they had outgrown, I was surprised to see they chose to discard movies I thought they still enjoyed: Thomas the Tank Engine, Sesame Street, and Moomin were all passť. The last time I took them to the movies, to see Cars, I noticed they were the oldest children there.
What is actually appropriate for their ages? Will they feel left out if they are too far behind their peers? Am I sheltering my boys too much? Or am I letting them be the young boys they are as long as they can? Ah, herein lies the dilemma, and who among us has the answer?
So, with these musings and with a slightly heavy heart, I went to my son's clothes cabinet and took away all the Bob the Builder underwear. Just as I gathered them up, my husband popped into the room and revealed, "He doesn't wear the bear shirts any more either."
What? The bear t-shirts seemed so innocuous to me--two solid-colored t-shirts embroidered with small figures from a popular Swedish children's magazine on the front. Maybe he just didn't want anything on his shirts at all? But, no, I realized it was indeed these specific figures, figures as bright and happy as Bob the Builder. My son still happily wore his many Star Wars t-shirts as well as the Disneyland t-shirt we bought last year, t-shirts which I guess he felt were more appropriate for a seven-year-old. The bears had to go. I fished out the khaki pants with the same bear logo and a pair of well-worn socks with the bear's friend on them. Funny, they had seemed like such "big-boy" clothes when I had bought them years ago for his older brother.
I realized, though, that as much as I want them to be little boys as long as they can, I also want to help them move on when it is time. So I spent a few minutes searching through his clothes, weeding out not only outgrown items but also the ones that had been around since he was a preschooler, clothes I had assumed he would still like because, well, he had always worn them. Way in the back of his cabinet, I found a t-shirt with Bob the Builder and his friends Scoop and Lofty, a t-shirt his older brother had gotten from Grandma about he same time as the now-unwanted underwear made their debut in our household. I pulled it out and put it on top of the pile of clothes inappropriate for seven-year-olds.
"Wait!" my son stopped me as I headed downstairs to the laundry room to add these clothes to our garage sale stash. "Where are you taking that t-shirt?" he demanded, pointing to the bright yellow Bob the Builder tee.
"I thought you said you didn't wear Bob the Builder anymore."
"Well," he stalled, "maybe I could keep it just for when I am building in the workshop. You know, he is a builder..."
He looked a little wistfully at the t-shirt--perhaps remembering a not-so-distant time when Bob was a real favorite of his.
"Or, you know," he continued, "it just might be a good shirt for cozy times with a book."
Yes, indeed. I smiled at my little boy, now a big seven-year-old, and he smiled back at me when I handed him the t-shirt.