Shining Light on our Pretend Play

Our clandestine play is based on a cartoon we watched several years ago, early morning TV binging when he was tiny and I needed coffee time. The story followed an incredibly whiny little boy and his baby sister, we watched before Plum even had a sister. Now he has two, one in his home and one he has never met, not even on his radar. Yet something connected for this child, something appealed to this boy about these characters and they have become the structure for our pretend play when no one else is around. “Gran, can we play Rosie and Caillou?” Sure honey, I tell him, even though my passion for this game evaporated about two years ago. “When is grandpa leaving? Can he hear us?” I try to convince him grandpa won’t care that we play this, that he won’t make fun of him, to no avail. It is top secret, this pretend play. We don’t even reference those names if anyone is in ear shot. As much as it drives me crazy, I know he is sharing something incredibly important and special, I play along when he asks.

We play on the front porch until the bus comes or the little boy across the street comes outside, then I am hushed and given the warning look: raised eyebrows over threatening eyes and a mouth that no longer is smiling or chattering but instead displays tightened lips with a chin jutted at me. I know I have pushed my luck, carrying on this play I don’t even want to engage in, just a word or two beyond his comfort. When we are confident the door has clicked closed signaling grandpa has left for work or no other children can hear us as we drive alone in my car, the script begins. We play as we finish breakfast, as he takes his bath, as he brushes teeth and gets his backpack gathered. I would much prefer to talk about real life, like what he is learning and more about his classroom dynamics and who he sits with on the bus. Yet this is what he chooses to share with me, this is the way he looks at his world.

He assigns roles, often I am Rosie’s mom, Braidon, Caillou, Rosie’s father when he is around, sometimes Scarlet joins us and now we have Maggie, a wonderful character based off of a delightful young girl at church. He is always Plum. Can you see why I have lost interest in this game? I have so many roles to play, many voices to keep track of, he is himself, often older, always the hero. I am generally seeking assistance from the imaginary video game we are play (Oh the hours we log on our pretend devices!), asking for tips on the pretend skateboards we are riding, wondering how to do the coolest tricks on the trampoline. My characters most often are impressed that Plum gets to help cook and garden and do wood working while they are unfamiliar with the nuances or safety issues with such tasks. Plum explains to his invisible audience how he has been performing such jobs with his grandmother for years and years, they cannot just jump in without watching how he does it safely, without learning to follow directions. He displays the sharp edges or dangerous cliffs or risky maneuvers until his invisible friends feel more confident and agree to follow the rules.  He is a patient teacher, if somewhat cocky in that he is always the best.

My characters are envious of his chess prowess, his martial arts moves, his understanding of church behavior (yes we play on the way there as well) and he graciously shares his knowledge and skill with all the kids involved, except Calliou. He is the bratty kid who carries all the negative traits my really best boy is working through. Anger outbursts? Jealousy? Chore avoidance? Calliou is the bad boy of our play, Plum has little time or interest in playing with this boy who breaks things and is disrespectful. He doesn’t want to play with a boy who won’t do his homework or include everyone on the playground. He schools Caillou or asks Rosie’s mom to explain the reasoning behind rules, the need for safety googles or why we believe in God. Sometimes he just can’t be bothered with this kid and sends him over to the adult in the story line, his back up when reporting bad behavior.

Sound complicated? I find it to be so, I long for the days ahead when we merely talk to each other, without the extra voices interfering. Yet, when I reflect on what we actually discuss and what we resolve in our play, I know he is holding on to this game for critical reasons. He IS talking to me about what is important, he IS sharing with me what is most valuable in his day. As he seeks to resolve social dynamics, as he looks at the choices he is making and replaying how he could have chosen differently or seeks to assign reasoning to the choices of those around him, he needs a safe place to try out ideas. He needs a place where he can say, “Okay stop that one, we’re going to start again. 3,2,1. Go.”  He needs a safe place where he is always the hero, where he is the smartest, the bravest, the best jumper. His world is getting bigger and wider and fuller. Sometimes I wonder if this  play is his confidence booster, a shot as necessary as the healthy food we insist on feeding him. Clearly it is meeting a need, he won’t let it go despite my groaning.

But what about my roles? How do I choose to portray the people in his world? I have discovered that I am not given much latitude with Caillou but the others, I am given free rein. I use those friends to support his kindness, his sweet spirit, his willingness to learn and assist others in need. I reward his desire to be a leader. We discuss the fallout from Caillou’s poor choices, we wonder how we can bring him along side us and reduce his anger. I seek to normalize the mistakes, the errors, the outbursts, I offer forgiveness and grace to this younger imaginary child. We are stuck in a black and white phase of this game, Calliou has little room for redemption but I am edging him ever closer. Still the other children are more fleshed out, have desires to lead as well, they bring more personality and less hero worship. We are establishing an entire village of friends who are learning how to save their money for the best skateboards and to do chores to buy more apps on their fancy phones. I secretly like these kids who play together so nicely, if only I weren’t in charge of all of them.

So what does it all mean? I wonder if he isn’t speaking to what we all really do, if we don’t create worlds and words and assign motivations for those people in our lives that fit our needs that may have little to do with their own reality. Based on the Brené Brown construct from “Rising Strong” my friend Janet wonders aloud to me quite often when I relate a situation to her, “Or maybe that is the story you are telling yourself.” It never fails to piss me off AND alter my course of thinking. She is allowing the characters to speak a bit more freely, to have voices that share new ideas. She and I play our own version of “Rosie and Calliou” almost every time we meet, in fact I realize now that whenever I meet up with trusted friends, we lay out our villages, we arrange the people either closer or further away from us, we tell the stories of our lives, all of course from our viewpoint. We choose to be the hero, the victim, the distant observer, we choose our role. We give voices and perceptions to all those who cross our paths. The adult version of this game I play every time with my Plum. Is it really so different?

As I go into this week, I am replaying some interactions, moving some of my people around in my mind, allowing them to have voices I had not considered before. I am choosing to lend them some grace, to wonder about the redemption of all of my characters. I know the stories I tell myself and the stories my Plum tells me are where we need the most light. Oh the things this child teaches me. Maybe you will join me in opening up your own pretend play and questioning your own stories. We may find some healing in understanding the voices of others. We may find we are more able to play nicely with others.

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