“Mom, you forgot your sword.”
Liam waves the shiny red and gold plastic sword over his head before tucking it into my belt loop. We are pirates. That means we take our swords everywhere, including the grocery store, the post office, and the playground.
Pirate play was actually a welcome change of pace. For weeks, we had been playing good guys vs. bad guys. New to this game, Liam had not yet developed much in the way of story line. He simply had one action figure and I had another and we would ram them together to make them fight, saying things like “bam” or “take that” for extra emphasis.
This game is certainly not out of the norm for a four year old boy, but a bit boring and repetitive for his mother. My husband had a temporary work assignment that required us moving to Hillsboro, OR for three months. Away from our home and friends, I became Liam’s primary playmate. For hours, we would bat our action figures together, taking breaks only to pretend to fight ourselves. I would entice Liam to play something else by dangling toy cars in the air or laying out puzzle pieces. He refused the bait. “No, Mom. I just want to play good guys bad guys.”
I tried to elaborate on the storyline. I’d pretend my action figure was an evil wizard casting a sleeping spell over the land. Liam would respond “I take off your spell. Bam!” He bashed my figurine with his, and we returned to the natural order of things in Liamland.
My husband would enter our apartment each night to find me drinking beer, sulking, or crying- sometimes all three. He’d inquire what was wrong. I’d snap “I’ve been playing good guys vs. bad guys for the last three hours. I’m done!” I’d then retreat to the bathroom to soak in the tub and watch multiple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.
Why did I allow my four year old son to goad me into this battle of wills? Easy. The most common answer to parenting problems- guilt. We had taken Liam away from his playmates. He could have been happily bashing toys with his contemporaries, but we had moved him halfway across the country. He tried to encourage his brother, Kellen, to play with him. But Kellen is only two years old. His attention span wanders almost by the minute. Kellen also didn’t understand the line between fighting with action figures and fighting his brother. He took to hitting Liam about the head with the figure, laughing despite my protests of “no hitting!” I was the only real game in town- at least until Dad came home each night.
I also made the mistake of reading an article. Damn you, Reading! I cannot find the link to said article now, but the gist was that helicopter parenting is decreasing the development of critical problem solving skills in children. No longer leading their own games or being forced to resolve problems on their own, children are growing up lacking the creativity and finesse required to handle conflict. True to my over the top nature, I determined that I would allow Liam to take the lead during play, even as my own sanity fell to the wayside..
Salvation came in the form of a used pirate shirt. An avid thrift store shopper, I drove to Goodwill to browse for Halloween costumes. Liam initially wanted to be a Ninja Turtle, but his gaze fell on a pirate shirt hanging from the rack.
“Mom, can I have this?”
The size and the price were right. He could indeed have the shirt.
Upon entering the apartment, he immediately wanted to dress in the shirt. He asked if I had a pirate hat, and I rummaged up an old bandana to tie around his head.
“RRRR” he proclaimed in true pirate fashion.
My imagination got the better of me, and overcame my proclamations to let Liam lead. I had saved a large box from our move. I outfitted it with a mast in the form of a broom, and a sail made from a sheet. The “Lord of the Deep” was ready for her maiden voyage.
The ship gave us the freedom to create a tale together. Kellen became our captain, as he loves to pretend to drive anything. Liam became a fierce explorer, first one overboard to look for treasure, danger, or both. I was his accomplice, ready to back him up should he meet a gang trying to steal our gold.
As we played, I began to see the distinction between leading the play and guiding creativity. I was the first to draw a treasure map, but I let him mark the “x” for the treasure. Before long, he was drawing the map. I may have noticed the pillows on the floor transforming into crocodiles, but Kellen was the one who determined our digital clock to be the eye of the dragon.
Our play became more elaborate and my evenings ended less often in tears. Sometimes in following one piece of advice to the letter, we devalue our instinct to parent. My sons are still learning. It is up to me to help them realize the potential of their imaginations. It can be easy to forget we are partners in this relationship. My happiness and enjoyment are of equal importance to theirs- a key lesson in managing conflict.
So now, I tuck my sword into my jeans before leaving the house, just in case a bad pirate emerges from behind the pea snacks at Trader Joe’s. There is more to this story of good guys, bad guys, and raising problem solvers. But that tale will have to wait for another day.