All the World's a Stage

Queen Falee sits in her castle, awaiting word from her brave knights. Strong Man approaches and yells, "Queen Falee! Bad guys are coming! Quick, we must climb Jawa Mountain and find a cave where we'll be safe!" A second superhero follows, this one a miniature of the first and yells, "Queen Falee! Bad guys! Up mountain!" A comic book scenario? An old suspense movie? No, just a typical day in our house. This afternoon, I've been named Queen Falee and the brave knights/superheroes are my two sons, wearing old baby blankets tied around their necks and carrying plastic swords. I play along as they narrate their story and feed me my lines.

Although there are many wonderful and rewarding aspects of parenting, one thing in particular continues to amaze and amuse me: children's capacity for imagination and make-believe. Even before I became a parent myself, I was fascinated by the way that children could dive into a make-believe world  and take you along with them. 

I spent a memorable afternoon years ago with a friend and her two-year old daughter. While her baby sister napped, she took full advantage of having her mom (and me) to herself and immediately began to direct us in the imaginary world she was creating. She was making it all up as she went along, and I found myself truly fascinated as I acted out the role she gave me. She was pretending to go grocery shopping and picked up various toys from around the room, announcing to us what each was in her world.

"We need some rice for dinner," she explained as she picked up a block and put it in her basket. "Here's some spinach," she continued, adding a green dinosaur toy. Throughout the afternoon, objects in the room became whatever she imagined them to be, and we acted according to the ever-changing roles she assigned us. What a magical world!

Fast-forward now to about 6 years later. Our own children, who are now 2 and 5 years old, love to play pretend. When they're in the midst of an imaginary world, it's a family affair. At various times, I've been known (at least around the house) as Julie, Strong Girl, and my current alter-ego, Queen Falee.

I remember vividly when the magic began in our house. Our oldest son, Jamie, was just 2 ½ years old when he came in our room one Saturday morning, hid under the covers, and announced that he was a baby bird hatching from an egg. He told us we were the Mommy Bird and the Daddy Bird, gave us our lines, and replayed the scene dozens of times with a slightly different twist each time. Throughout that morning, we were birds, dolphins, lions, and bears. And that was just the beginning.

He soon progressed from animals to humans. It was a common part of our evening meal to be assigned roles to play. There was a distinct pattern. He'd begin by assigning himself the lead male role, and I'd get the lead female role. This always left him a bit puzzled as to what role to assign to his father, so my husband would usually end up with a more challenging part to play. 
"OK, I'm Pop Pop. Mommy, you're Grammie. Daddy, you're...umm...you're Aunt Beth!"

One day while the three of us were playing ball together, he made up entirely new identities for us. We have no idea where these names came from, but he still uses these roles, almost three years later. He named himself Mike, me Julie, and my husband Joe. A couple of years later, when his little brother was born, he pointed out that he too needed a role and our youngest was promptly christened Bill (his "real" name is Craig). In fact, as I'm writing this, my son just came in and said, "Hi, Julie! It's me, Mike." He's taken to assuming his alter-ego, Mike, at various times, telling us that he's going on a trip but not to worry because Mike will be here instead. It's a nice kind of freedom, really. Who wouldn't like to just take a vacation and leave their normal routine for some other person to take care of? During a period of time when I was traveling frequently for my job, Mike also seemed to be a way for Jamie to feel more comfortable with my comings and goings, as he himself pretended to be leaving on a trip.

While Mike has been with us for quite a while, other roles can be quite fluid, changing from one moment to the next. One morning, we put on some music and were enjoying dancing around the family room. It wasn't just plain old dancing for long, though. First, Jamie donned a pair of sunglasses. As usual, he gave me my instructions: "Mommy, pretend I'm Mike, but you don't know who I am because I'm wearing these glasses." I played along, but that persona didn't last very long. Moments later, he had pulled on a cape and grabbed a sword. "Now I'm Action Man. I'm here because there might be bad guys at this dance." The scenario grew from there, with identities changing every few minutes, and Jamie feeding me my lines.

One Sunday morning, Jamie was playing in our bed, pretending to be a lifeguard (while we pretended there was any chance on earth we could sleep a few more minutes). He had a little plastic megaphone and a few stuffed animals and dinosaurs on the bed. As usual, our roles were assigned; we were the other lifeguards. He stood up on our bed, called through his megaphone about the various emergencies that came up, and then brought an "injured" dinosaur or animal over to get a Band-Aid. He'd call, " Friend lifeguards! Come quick! We have a boo boo here! A big boo boo! Hurry!"

You have to play close attention to all this role-playing though  it's sometimes difficult to keep track of the rules. During a ride in the car with his grandmother, Jamie assigned roles as usual. "Grammie, you be Sue. I'm Ken" (that's me and my husband). He insisted his grandma call him Ken and asked for his own car keys from his carseat in the back. His grandmother went along with all of this (she'd find a way to go to the moon, if he asked her), as he started the car from the back and "drove" along with her. They stopped at a red light and his grandma said, "Ken, when the light turns green, which way are you going to turn?" In an exasperated voice, he replied, "Grammie! I don't have the steering wheel  you do!" Some days, you just can't win.

Things really began to get exciting around here when my son discovered superheroes. Like all young boys, he became enamored of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Hercules, and any other being with special powers. For someone who's always told what to do, it must seem like the ultimate freedom to be a superhero. Not content to simply copy other heroes, Jamie decided he needed his own, unique super identity and Strong Man was born. As he explained to his father, "Daddy, I'm an action figure. I'mStrong Man! Strong man is even stronger than Superman. He has special powers. He uses his strong muscles and he hits and kicks - but only bad guys." Soon after, I was named Strong Girl. Now this is a role I can get into!

By the time his younger brother was a few weeks old, Jamie was incorporating him into the scene, too. One morning he came into our room as I was nursing the baby and announced, "Mommy, you're an astronaut, and I'm a space dog named Lump, and Craig is the astronaut's baby." Recently, our youngest son, now two years old, was given the honor of being named Strong Boy.

In fact, we've noticed a definite pattern in the boys' pretend play. The roles that Jamie assigns to his younger brother are always a step below Jamie's own. One of his favorite all-purpose roles is the assistant, as in "I'm the King, and Craig is my assistant," "I'm the Fearless Knight and Craig is my assistant," "I'm the Leader and" Well, you get the picture. Strong Boy is actually quite a promotion.

Yesterday, as the boys ran around the house wearing blankets tied as capes, Jamie paused long enough to explain his current persona to me: "Mommy, I'm a king, but I'm only eight years old. I have special powers but since I'm only eight, I can still be a kid for a long, long time." I hope so. I'm not quite ready to give up my role as Strong Girl yet.

© Suzan L. Jackson, 2000
An adaptation of this essay appeared in the May/June 2001 issue of Mothering magazine.
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