At the Intersection of Make-Believe & “Making It Work”
Imagination—it’s something I had in spades when I was a child, and I have been proud and giddy as I’ve watched my son develop a healthy imagination of his own. He’s loved, loved, loved indulging in make-believe scenarios, and it’s been one of our favorite “together” pastimes over the past two years. But I have found myself wondering lately: Does it matter exactly what types of pretend play he’s engaging in? Let me explain.
Of Pirates, Astronauts, and Chefs
My 3-year-old son’s favorite make-believe realms have recently run to outer space, his Fisher Price kitchen (outfitted with all my missing Cuisinart utensils), and Captain Hook’s Never Sea. A sample dialogue—all his, not embellished, and a mere 3-minute portion of a two-hour space mission—happened while he donned his astronaut costume from Halloween and wielded an old Nintendo controller as our rocket ship command center:
“Mom, you need to help me steer this space ship, because it’s big and getting out of control. And I like to go FAST. So you take this controller and you press the same buttons as me. Okay? Okay, Mom?
Left. Right. Right again. Now up and up and up! We’re getting close to the moon—can you see it? Right there!!! Hit the break, now—we don’t want to crash into it! [his volume and pitch take on clear urgency as his words spill out as fast as our space craft is presumably traveling]
Let’s pack our bags so we can walk on the moon. Remember, we need lots of stuff in case of emergency [that last word is whispered and elongated dramatically for effect—e-M-E-R-g-e-n-c-y]. I’ve got food and our book to write in. We have to write down everything we see, you know. You get the other stuff. You’re stronger, but I’m strong too. We’re both really, really strong, right?
Oh, be quiet! ["qwiwet"—oh how I wish I had a recording of that word to share with you...Elmer Fudd-like!] There are monsters here. [Whispering:] Let’s explore, but be very qwiwet. We don’t want the monsters to get us!!
[Feverish now:] Hurry, mom—lets get back on our rocket! We need to go to Mars fast!! It’s far, so we’re going to take a nap in the ship. [Don't I wish?!]…”
Two days later, a different scenario:
[His red plastic cell phone rings, and he answers enthusiastically:] “Hello? How are you? Oh good. Nothing really. We’re just taking Nanny—that’s my grandmother—to a little quickie trip to the hospital. [Pause.] Yes. I know. No, it’s okay.
[Aside to me:] Mom, it’s a different doctor for Nan. I told him she’s fine.
[Back to phone, brow creased in concentration:] Well, we didn’t give her all the pills, just the morning ones. The red one, you can’t crush. [Pause.] Well, we’re just going to use a little oxygen tank. And the taxi is coming. [Snaps his flip phone shut with a flourish.]
Mom, I told the doctor we’re taking good care of Nanny. I’m going to dress myself while you get ready, and then we can go, okay?”
Yes, he made a play scenario out of something very serious (once seemingly dire) from our real life; playing doctor has not been quite the same since we visited his great-grandmother in the hospital over a few weeks in January. During the first instant of my eavesdropping on his “phone call,” I was grinning at his deft role play. For the next few, I was troubled by the topic of his conversation. Now my mindset about the whole thing falls somewhere in the middle—he’s still pretending, after all, and he has a true sense of what’s going on within our family…and it’s life. I can present it to him in age-appropriate ways, I can protect him from what I can, and I can explain and hug and be a role model: caregiver, nurturer, juggler, mother, granddaughter, wife, daughter, editor, professional, human. But I can’t hide him from the world. And I don’t want to.
We’re In It Together
His checking in on his great-grandmother regularly, with tenderness and real concern; his telling me he needs to cheer her up on occasion; his supreme patience in countless medical waiting rooms—he should not be exposed to these things at the age of 3. Yet he makes me proud, and I am comforted to have him as my companion on this part of my life journey, and to accompany him on this part of his. And yes, we can still have some imaginary fun.