A Letter to 5-Year-Old Me: Don’t Grow Up

Dear 5-Year-Old Me,

Hello, it’s me. (You don’t understand that reference now, but I promise you will someday.)

So tomorrow is your first day of kindergarten, huh? You’re growing up! I bet you’ll be so eager to take off that you’ll leave your teary-eyed mom in your wake, wishing she could go back to when she’d cradle you in just one arm. I bet you’ll yank your hand out of hers and run as fast as your little white Keds can take you to that big yellow bus. But please, for both of our sakes, just let her hug you one last time. Let her take pictures. Smile. When you’re my age, you’ll be glad you did.

First day of kindergarten and last day of high school. I was annoyed that my mom was taking pictures both times. Some things never change.

My first day of kindergarten next to my last day of high school. In both, I was annoyed that my mom was taking pictures. Some things never change.

Speaking of my age, I am 22 years old. I bet you can’t even count that high yet. (I also bet that you’ll try to prove me wrong.) But before you can stomp your foot indignantly in protest of cleaning up your 101 Dalmatians toys, you’ll be me, typing this letter on a machine that hasn’t even been invented yet. That might be enough to make your little blonde head spin, but it’s happening right now. You’re getting older with each passing day, and you can’t stop it. Neither can I.

So when I tell you not to grow up, I don’t mean it literally. I still haven’t found a way to slow the ticking hands of time. But there are things that I want you to know, things that I wish I would’ve known, about getting older. Most of them will come as a shock, so hang on tight.

I know right now that it seems the world is too big for you, or that you are too big for it. You don’t want to take naps when your mom tells you to. You want to choose your own bed time. And you don’t want to eat pork chops for dinner; trust me, I understand that one. Right now, each problem must feel as if it’s consuming you. So you look to your mom and wish you were a grown-up. After all, she gets to do everything you wish you could do and more. All you see is her making the rules, buying you new toys, and going to bed whenever she wants.

What you don’t see is how hard she works so that she can send you to daycare and put those (albeit yucky) pork chops on your plate. You don’t see her making rent payments on a single mother’s salary or trying to squeeze yet another sick day out of her job because you have a fever. This is the side of adulthood that you don’t see, and this side is more real.

Right now, you want your own money so you can buy whatever you want. I know this is going to sound like a terrible paradox, and it is, but the more money you earn, the more will be siphoned away into rent, car insurance, medical bills, and other needs that you never really want. After college, once you step into real adulthood, nothing in life is free. Be grateful for your possessions, but don’t forget the intangibles your parents provide for you, too, and don’t think that what you own in life determines your worth. You’ll learn someday that all the toys in the world won’t make you feel whole.

You want to skip nap time and go to bed as late as possible. I know that’s really fun on New Year’s Eve, but trust me, when you’re my age, you’ll never get enough sleep. You’ll lie awake wondering if you messed something up at work that day or thinking through that time four years ago that you said something stupid. And that abundant kid energy that powers you through soccer games and bike riding? It doesn’t last forever. Don’t just take naps: savor them, and run so fast you feel as if your legs might fly away. You need sleep and exercise, and there won’t always be enough time for both when you’re my age.

You want freedom. You want independence. Hang on to that steadfastness, because it will serve you well someday. But for now, enjoy the freedom of simply being. You don’t have to show up to work at a certain time, score a certain amount on an exam, or put on a certain face for each world you enter. You have the easiest job of all: being a kid. I know that some days are hard, but none of it will compare to what you will face as an adult. Now, I don’t say this to scare you: I’ve survived it all, and since you are me, know that you will, too. You may not have the freedom to make your own choices right now, but the choices get harder and harder with each year you add. For now, just be glad that you are free to be young.

When you’re seven, adjusting to a new school, you’ll want to be eight so you can learn how to sign your name in cursive. When you’re nine and just beginning to explore the world of writing stories, you’ll want to be 10, because that extra digit means something. But when you turn 10, you’ll realize it means nothing until you’re 11, because that’s when you get to go to middle school. And once you’re 12, you’ll be too young to be taken seriously, but too old to get away with everything from which being a kid excused you, so you’ll long to be 13, a teenager. When you’re 15 and behind the wheel for the first time, you’ll want to be 16 just so your mom won’t have to sit in the passenger seat with you. And when you get your heart broken for the first time, like everyone inevitably does, you’ll want to cut your ties and escape to a new frontier: college.

It is only after this, the most incredible time of your life, that you’ll start to realize that you shouldn’t have wished to grow up. Your firsts of college — first Badger football game, first party, first midterm — will soon subside to lasts. And at the end of it all, you’ll be sitting in your childhood room, sifting through years of poems and drawings and little keychains that your stepdad brought back from business trips for you, wondering how you have only four days until you put on your cap and gown and become someone new.

A couple months later, your childhood home won’t be yours anymore, and your parents will head off to their own new adventure a thousand miles away from you. In this moment, you’ll think back to when you ran to the bus on your very first day of kindergarten, how it feels different to leave than to be left. You will survive this as you’ve survived everything else. But this will be the moment that you’ll want to go back.

Tomorrow is your first day of kindergarten, and time feels like a path stretched out endlessly to the horizon in front of you. Yes, you have time, but use it well. Hug your parents. Do what they tell you to do. Eat your dinner, even if it is pork chops — you’ll be happy to know that I’m a vegetarian and will someday spare you this injustice.  For now, be a kid, and stop wishing to be something else. You have a wonderful life awaiting you once you reach adulthood: a great job, a loving family, an incredible boyfriend, and a bright future. But I promise that only good will come of taking your time getting here.

Know that I am always rooting for you, and if ever anything feels impossible, I am proof that it’s not.

Love always,