There’s an old ballad called “Making Believe.” Dozens of singers have recorded it in a variety of styles: country, rock, pop, punk, R&B and heavy metal. The most famous version was a No.2 hit for Kitty Wells in
that you still love me
it’s leaving me alone and so blue.
I’ll always dream
but I’ll never own you.
is all I can do.
It’s a song about unrequited love, but when I hear it I think about my oldest daughter, Annie. When she was five we’d play “Scooby-Doo,” based on her favorite TV show. I’d be Shaggy, and she’d be Scooby. I’d be Freddy, and she’d be Velma or Daphne.
“Daddy? Can we go on a “Scooby-Doo” mystery adventure safari?”
She’d stuff a backpack with supplies – pop-up tent, green plastic frying pan, spatula, utility belt and drill, play food, plates and cups and a real working lantern! I’d carry two blankets for sleeping bags. We turned off all the lights, switched on the lantern and started hunting Dracula, Frankenstein and the Chupacabra.
“What’s that?” she’d ask. “Monsters?”
“I think so.”
“I’m so sccccared!” Her eyes would go wide, her arms would tremble, her teeth would rattle.
Night fell after five minutes. We’d set up camp, make dinner over an open (and invisible) fire and tell ghost stories. We’d go to sleep and wake up three seconds later.
“Uhhoh! I’m so tired. Get up, Shaggy.” Annie would be sitting on my chest, shaking my head, patting the side of my face.
“I think we should sleep a little more.”
“No, the ghosts are coming! Get up! Hurry!”
We’d hunt mummies and witch doctors throughout the house. Somehow, we were always surprised when they weren’t really monsters at all, but only the professor or sea captain dressed up in very realistic costumes.
“Like zoiks, Scoob!”
I’d say. “Let’s get some hamburgers and pizzas. Chasing monsters is making me hungry.”
“Rats right! I’m hungry, too. Ret’s ret roing!”
Annie’s Scooby impersonation wasn’t very good. Sometimes I’d do both voices – Velma, Daphne and Freddy, too. I was proud of Annie, though. She realized that plain, bespectacled Velma was the smart one, and that glamorous Daphne was useless. The game would end after 30 minutes. Or so I thought. A few hours later, Annie would say something like
“Shaggy, how are we going to catch the headless phantom?”
I was impressed by her commitment to the role and her ability to stay in character. A few hours later, she’d do it again. “The werewolf is coming! Let’s hide in the suits of armor that are right there because we’re in a castle!” At this point, I wasn’t impressed. I was tired of the whole thing. And somewhat disturbed by Annie’s preoccupation with a talking cartoon dog who had a speech impediment. (Not to mention the dog’s human friend, a hippie with an eating disorder. Or his other friends, who wore neckerchiefs as if they were in some sort of fashionable cult.) Why was she so obsessed? It may have been the purple “Scooby-Doo” dress she was wearing. Or her Mystery Machine toy with real working headlights. Or the Scooby-Doo blanket and bathing suit. Or the action figures, sticker books, DVDs and t-shirt.
The world of make-believe is a powerful force for children: cartoons, books, movies, the myths they hear from adults. Their world is filled with talking animals, monsters, imaginary lands, haunted forests, mythological creatures, supernatural powers and improbable plots. A G-rated “Game of Thrones.” And that’s probably why so many adults like sci-fi and fantasy. It takes them back to childhood and relocates the painful, threatening aspects of life to a fictional world. For both kids and adults, this makes the real world feel more safe and secure.
Imaginative play isn’t just fun and games. It’s an essential component of childhood development. Through make-believe, kids develop creativity, learn to understand others and negotiate the confusing, unspoken rules of social interaction. They also use fictional scenarios to address concerns and questions about their lives – a lucid dream they stage and choreograph. For example, Annie always wanted to pretend we were Mommy and Daddy going for a walk, eating out or playing with our daughter “Anna.” She was learning to tell her own story, like the ones she heard, read and watched. She wanted to be part of the creative process. Of course, her inventions were quite similar to existing stories. “Cinderella,“ “Scooby-Doo,” Barbie and Ken. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, plagiarism may be the first step toward creativity.
According to Tracy Gleason, a psychologist who studies childhood development, during imaginative play children “are simultaneously behaving as themselves and as someone else. This gives them a chance to explore the world from different perspectives, and is a feat that requires thinking about two ways of beige at once, something that children may have difficulty doing in other circumstances.”
To be fair, adults have a hard time doing this as well. Some of us can’t even think about one way of being. I’m not naming names, but still.
So, when Annie and I would take care of a pretend child, she was exploring what it must feel like to be the parent. How do you comfort a child? How do you make a baby stop crying? How do you respond when a child misbehaves? She already knew what it felt like to be the child, but through make-believe she was able to walk in her parents’ shoes. During these reenactments she was empathizing with others, struggling to understand her parents, and herself, in situations comparable to those from her own life. As Aristotle explained two-and-a-half millennia ago, watching a play allows us to experience catharsis, or emotional purging. We see events unfold on stage that we can understand and appreciate because we’ve had similar, if less dramatic, conflicts in our own lives. By watching Oedipus gouge out his eyes and confront his deepest fears, we’re better able to address our own problems, or at least tolerate them. (We’re also relieved: our restless leg syndrome or lack of a new iPhone isn’t quite as tragic as what Oedipus is going through.)
Imaginative play is healthy for the parent, too. Looking at the plastic baby doll with missing clumps of hair and crayon marks on her face, I could admit that I, too, was an imperfect parent. I wasn’t alone. Plus, my daughter’s leg wasn’t dangling from her hip by an elastic band, so presumably I was doing something right. I was also forced to look back on my own childhood, which allowed me to better sympathize with Annie. At age 4, when Mom wasn’t looking, I cut a slit in Brown Bear’s mouth and fed him Cheerios with milk. This showed compassion, I now realized, not an appetite for destruction. I just wanted to feed the hungry bear. (That’s not the way my parents saw it, however, when they found a smelly, soggy stuffed animal.) I try to keep this in mind whenever my kids “show compassion” by destroying their toys.
After playing make-believe with Annie, I also feel better about all those imaginary friends I used to have. I wasn’t a socially inept dork, like everyone said. I was engaging in interpersonal growth.
Of course, Annie would also exploit make-believe for personal gain. I remember being impressed, if also increasingly annoyed, by a conversation we had shortly after her sister Kate was born:
“Can I have a treat, Daddy?”
“No, you’ve had enough.”
“Just another two candy bars?”
“That’s not fair.”
Silence. We were in the middle of a walk.
“Can we play Mommy and Daddy?” she asked.
“Good.” I hated it when I had to wear the wig and high heels.
“We’re going shopping, Andrew. Do you have money?”
“Alright then. Buy me some candy bars.”
“But you have to. I’m Mommy. I can eat whatever I want.”
“You’re just pretending to be Mommy.”
“I am Mommy. I’m not pretending.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m in charge, Andrew. Not you.”
She was right about that. I tried to think the way she did.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Some monsters took my
money. Sorry. Can’t buy any candy.”
“No they didn’t. Monsters aren’t real.”
Were they teaching rhetoric in preschool? Advanced argumentation skills? Socratic method? Was she studying to be a trial lawyer? We were in front of the convenience store now.
“Buy me a candy bar, husband.”
Annie stuck her little nose in the air, grasping a purple sequined handbag with great poise. She wore red plastic heels and a Disney tiara.
“Sorry. Monsters … it’s out of my hands.”
“There are no such things as monsters! Really, hmm!”
People were starting to stare. I bent down and whispered.
“Let’s go back home.”
“Not until I get my candy, husband. I can eat whatever I want.”
“No you can’t.”
“Are you saying I need to diet? Are you saying she needs to lose weight? I’ll tell Mom you said that.”
“What kind of candy do you want?”
I made it through Annie’s childhood. Somehow. And her sister’s. Kate’s a teenager now and doesn’t believe in fairy tales anymore. Just Teen Vogue and Snapchat.
Grace, the youngest, is still only six, and floats through her own make-believe world. She plays with Polly Pocket, Barbie, Lego Friends and American Girl. She walks her baby in a stroller, feeds her, teaches her to read. She writes and illustrates books with cereal-box covers. She composes songs and sings them, with intricately choreographed dance routines. Sometimes she uses stage names: Horsey Gondack, Kitty Kroons, Barb Doll. The songs are pretty good. Nice melodies, surprisingly astute lyrics, some light plagiarism.
Grace and I also run around in the woods with walkie-talkies, escaping from Dr. Evil and Professor Bad, throwing smoke bombs and using invisibility cloaks. We play Princess, School, My Little Pony and Office (she thinks cubicles and assignments are fun, for some reason). Sometimes she holds a toy phone to her ear. “Hello? Hi, yeah yeah. I’m fine. Look, I have to go now. Shopping, yeah. My feet are so sore!”
I think of the Kitty Wells’ song. Making believe / is all I can do. Making believe isn’t all Grace can do, but it may be what she does best.