I have an 18-month-old son, and he’s starting to pretend.

These are not yet the elaborate imagination games that my six-year-old nephew plays (though they largely revolve around off-the-shelf imagination material like superheroes and pokemon cards; I can only hope he’s doing some mental mash-ups, pitting Charmander against Batman as I used to pit my G.I. Joes against my Transformers). I’m no developmental specialist, but I know its probably not yet “playing pretend” as it is conventionally understood; it may instead just be modeling and imitating our behavior. We have an old cell phone with no battery we let him carry around, and he flips it open and holds it to his head and says (I swear) “Blah blah blah blah.” He’ll hold it up to our ears, we’ll pretend chat, and then he’ll take it back. This is proto-pretending, and imitation eventually shifts into invention.

Our son has two identical little stuffed bears (his loveys), and he’ll hold them up and point them at each other and babble, bang them together and throw them in the air and go “whee” — that’s not imitating anything we do, so what can it be but playing pretend? And who knows what he’s pretending? When he was very little we used to watch him sleep, watch his eyes flutter in a dream, and wonder, what is he dreaming about? The joys of milk? The terror of the vacuum cleaner? Now he’s been more places (Hawaii, Indiana, Wisconsin, countless parks), and done many things, and his mental palette is filled with new colors. He will sit and play quietly, absorbed, for relatively long periods. (I hear him rattling things and talking to himself in his quiet nonsense language as I write this.) He is clearly the hero of his own story already, sometimes the blessed prince who rules all he surveys with a vast benevolence, sometimes the oppressed unfortunate who can only throw himself headlong on the grass and bellow about the unfairness of being denied the opportunity to run in traffic or pet mangy stray dogs. He’s interested in everything; he’s putting together the world; he’s learning to make stories with himself at the center. It makes me think about the importance of story. Stories tell us how to live in the world. (Or how not to.) Having him, watching him grow up, is almost like growing up again myself.

I wrote a poem about him, ten months ago, when he was first becoming really very verbal:

“Common Language”

My son sits in his high chair (white
plastic from Ikea), face smeared with organic
summer vegetables in baby-friendly
mashed form, and in between bites he


Open-ended vowels, a few
consonants here and there: Ah na
na ma ma mum. He looks very serious but
then he occasionally giggles, and I
wonder if he’s commenting on the quality
of the food (which I sampled; it’s
pretty foul). Eight months old
and already a critic. I think about
how, after a day of unusual excitements
(a plane ride, a book signing, one
of the too many times he’s had surgery
already on his eyes), he shouts and
babbles and grumbles and earnestly
explains. My wife and I always say he’s

telling us about his day. It’s amazing

watching him drink down the world, and is
it any wonder he tries to talk
it over, talk it through, talk to us
the way we talk to each other? He’s trying
to invent a common language from first
principles. He’s unlocking
one of the great secrets of the human
universe here, and kid, believe me,

I’m listening.

2 Responses to “Pretending”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    May 26, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Your first, I’ll assume? Ah, dear–welcome to the wonderful, frightening, extraordinary world of watching your child grow. I got chills reading your post. It made me remember. I’m sure you understand.

    My kids are now 26, 23, 19 and 17. They’re never far from babyhood as far as I’m concerned. Seeing the world through your kids’ eyes never gets old.

    Thanks for sharing the poem. Beautiful.

  2. 2 amcatoir
    May 26, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    I like the phrase, “off-the-shelf imagination material.” I’ve never heard it called that before, but I like it.

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