My son Miles fell in love a few weeks ago, soon after his fifth birthday. As a result, he’s taken to strutting around our house wearing a paper crown, wrapped in a blanket, clutching a book at his side. Without a torch, he holds up a toy banana. His alter-ego soulmate is the Statue of Liberty.
This July 4th, the family gathered on our couch to watch a 35-year-old Ken Burns documentary about Lady Liberty. Intended for adults, the movie mostly flew over Miles’s head, but one part fascinated him: a newspaper cartoon from the 1880s depicting the statue as haggard and slumped. “Why is she sitting on a rock?” he asked.
“Guess she left her pedestal to explore,” I said.
He frowned at my theory, and shrugged. “Statues can’t walk.”
The cartoon was drawn after Lady Liberty had been disassembled in Paris and shipped to America, but before her reconstruction in New York. Many opposed the project as a frivolous expense, but Joseph Pulitzer’s campaign raised enough funds for it to move forward as a symbol of freedom.
In an interview with Burns, James Baldwin challenged this interpretation, commenting that Black Americans saw the statue as a “very bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.”
Miles stared blankly at Baldwin. About a week before, while drawing one of many portraits of his favorite torch-bearer—always smiling—he’d thought to inquire about this strange word liberty. “It means you can act freely,” I had explained.
“Why wouldn’t someone be free?”
“People aren’t always fair,” I said. “Sometimes they block what others want or need to do.”
He nodded, knowingly. “Like when you make me practice letters instead of watching Ice Age.”
His fascination with statues and other landmarks has grown at the same time as protests of George Floyd’s death involving damage to statues across the country. He has no idea some police wrongfully take the lives of civilians they’re asked to protect. Last year, he became curious about animals killing each other in nature films, but he hasn’t made the link to people killing each other. His bursts of understanding often seem to occupy different cerebral neighborhoods, the connections percolating subconsciously, if anywhere. Much like adults, he doesn’t embrace concepts he can’t handle emotionally.
Relevant facts and experience don’t necessarily help. For example, he knows I met his mother in Baltimore and that Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492. He also takes extreme pleasure in building famous statues and edifices with his blocks and smashing them with a ball he imagines as a meteor, over and over, for hours. But the day after July 4th, when I informed him that people in Baltimore celebrated Independence Day by smashing a statue of Christopher Columbus and dragging it underwater, he dismissed this as an obvious falsehood. “I told you, daddy. Statues can’t move.”
“What about your drawings of the Statue of Liberty getting knocked down?” I asked. “You’ve done about 20 of those.”
“The real one can’t fall,” he clarified. “It’s too strong.”
I’m not sure how far to take these conversations. The Internet offers no parenting advice on whether and when to tell your child that the inscription on his favorite monument, inviting the “masses yearning to breathe free,” is questionable these days as Black men and women feel hard-pressed to breathe at all. Whether and when to tell him that, although the statue was inspired by the abolition of slavery, it appeared the same decade as a 76-foot statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans.
Miles’s obsession has spread to the rest of New York’s skyline. He names his favorite buildings to anyone willing to listen: Chrysler, Woolworth, Flatiron and, of course, Empire State. For a while, he’d mention the Twin Towers—countless Google images show it casually haunting the other scrapers, like a dead relative showing up for dinner.
At first I didn’t correct him, but again I felt conflicted. Just as it seemed wrong to talk about Columbus while omitting current events, wasn’t it irresponsible to let him believe the Towers still stood? “They’re gone now,” I finally announced this past week.
He processed that. “Well, what happened?”
“Someone didn’t like them. And took them down.”
“They didn’t like how they looked?” he asked.
“Didn’t like the people inside them. Or our country.”
He thought a minute, possibly considering his unbeatable buildings can’t move argument. Instead, he suggested, “Sometimes people break buildings if they aren’t friends with the makers.” He’s had a thing for rule statements lately, testing out broader applications. “It happens with our Legos at school, too.”
But he can’t comprehend the rules that govern why real buildings and statues get toppled while others stay up, because the emotion of hatred remains utterly foreign to him — the hatred of people who destroy monuments that should be left alone, of people who defend ones that should be removed, of those who built them in the first place. He’s lucky to be young and privileged in his blissful bubble filled with enough love that odium can’t meaningfully penetrate it. Hate casts its shadows but only for innocent glimpses, the light chasing them away before they’re recognized.
I’m tempted to correct beliefs that will inevitably cause despair when he discovers they’re untrue. But how can I not let him believe in a world where love reigns supreme for as long as possible? It seems monstrous to facilitate his grasp of the more accurate rule statements: humans have always hated other humans, wishing their enemies to be oppressed or dead. The reasons can be justified or senseless. And this is how things will always be.
Yet, when he becomes the Statue of Liberty, his blanket-robe trailing behind as he peacocks his costume around our house, I find myself questioning the rule that our species is programmed to hate. Maybe he should get to keep his worldview — long enough, at least, to visit the statue and adore the city through its majestic crown, as I did at his age. Perhaps some good can come from his eventual disappointment and disillusion, after he learns there’s more to heartbreaking destruction than his pretend meteors, more to evil than the bad guys in his cartoons. My beacon of hope is that the longer he inhabits his fairytale realm, the more profoundly he will feel its loss, and the more passionately he will seek to resurrect it in the real world.
Matt Fuchs is a journalist living in Silver Spring, Md., and an officer for a nonprofit helping communities become more climate resilient.