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My Kid Has Older Friends, and It Scares Me

I hear a soft knock on our front door, and I immediately know what to expect on the other side: a boy — maybe 7 years old, maybe 9 years old, maybe 11 — asking to play with my son.

The door-knocking boy knows that my son can’t leave the area and ride his bike around the development like the older, bigger kids. He knows that my son has to stay where I can see him.

After all, my son is only 5 years old.

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But you should see the way my little 5-year-old lights up when he sees his buddies come by to play. To him, there’s no real age difference. I hear his belly laugh through the open window. I hear his ideas crumble into gasping giggles as he struggles to get a sentence out through all of that unhinged joy. And those older, bigger boys have inexplicably accepted him as a peer — even if he has a slight baby accent and still needs training wheels.

He looks at these older kids and sees playmates and role models. Real friendship. And for the most part, he’s been forging a positive bond. My son hears his friends say “please” and “thanks for having me” before leaving our house. They teach him math problems and always make a seat available on the school bus.

“I just can’t believe Noah’s going to Kindergarten,” said one of the 8-year-old boys, in the same way a nostalgic uncle might muse. “He’s getting so big.”

“You guys go on and ride bikes, someone has to stay with Noah,” the 11-year-old will sweetly offer.

“No shooting Noah! He’s too little,” a third-grade friend demands during a Nerf war.

And yet I still feel a deep “uh oh” feeling in my gut.

All of the mixed-age benefits can’t deny the very real coming-of-age crap along the way.

I know first-hand how badly kids want to be around older, cooler kids. I know how this dynamic, if left unsupervised, can lead to things being learned to soon, too crudely, as the little one’s innocence slowly seeps like water from a sieve.

The oldest one in the neighborhood clan is in sixth grade, and no matter how nice and polite he might be, that’s a scary age gap. A lot happens between Kindergarten and middle school, and all of the mixed-age benefits can’t deny the very real coming-of-age crap along the way.

How long until someone pulls out a Victoria’s Secret catalog in a huddle of immature boys? Until a joint is lit or a cigarette appears? ‘Tis the nature of hanging with the Big Kids, right? It’s a tale as old as time, and a mistake too many parents turn a blind-eye toward.

Yes, he deserves to be happy.

Yes, he deserves to form friendships and have fun.

But more than anything, he deserves to have a childhood.

He deserves to be 5 years old — not a minute older.

I know I can’t bubble wrap his brain and his heart, but I can say NO when that “uh oh” feeling starts to creep in. NO to the sleepovers, NO to running around the neighborhood without me, NO to spending all of his free time with older kids — no matter how nice or cool they are.

This is the only childhood he’ll have, and it can be tainted and turned in a blink. He’ll be 7, 8, 11 years old in just a few heartbeats. He’ll fit into those big-kid shoes, he’ll have an evolved pop-culture interest, and he’ll develop the same mature mannerisms with time.

But shouldn’t it come ... with time?

Right now he needs to be his own age — even if my totally unfair limits and meanest-mom-in-the-world boundaries are unpopular.

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There will be plenty of influences and experiences that I have no control over in his life. There will be compromises and leaps of faith along the way. This is only the beginning of a long, unsteady, scary balancing act.

But when it comes to preserving his childhood? That’s non-negotiable.

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