parenting

How I Learned to Cherish My Son’s Wild Imagination

jackiejackalope

Jackie the Jackalope came to live with us a couple of months ago. My son picked her out of a big bin of similar stuffed animals and immediately identified her as a jackalope.

Jackie has soft, gray fur; a white belly; and velvety, floppy ears. I am not sure where Sam heard of jackalopes, or why he thought Jackie was one–she does not have the small antlers that usually sit on top of the head of these mythical animals. But I guess having a jackalope is a lot more exciting and fun than playing with a plain old bunny.

Sam has a very vivid imagination, a very detailed view of what world he is in at any given moment. Of course we, adults on the outside, can’t always follow along with what is happening when he is playing. Are we pharaohs in ancient Egypt? Are we soldiers from the Union Army, or are we fighters from the Ottoman Empire trying to capture a castle in Hungary? At times–like in the morning when I just want Sam to finish breakfast and put his shoes on so that we can get going–it’s hard to appreciate his imaginary life. While I am talking about how it’s already 8 o’clock and we should really get going, Sam is babbling on and on about grave robbers, and dragons, and witches. When I am trying to get him to tell me about his day, I hear about robots, and magic horses, and spaceships–I am fairly certain those are not standard preschool toys.

Our living room is usually wrecked by the end of a long snow day–the couch cushions have been functioning as horses, an ambulance, and ladders. The cushy chair is a battleground and hiding place for toy soldiers. The rug under the coffee table is a garage. The rocking chair is a trap for errant robots. “Mama, you can’t sit there, that’s a lake!” I hear when I try to claim a spot on the carpet with my laptop. It takes a long time to restore order and reality in the evenings.

We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas and in the new year–after weeks of hijinks with Jack, our Elf on the Shelf, and of course Santa–I promised myself that at least our elf would be gone next year and that I’d be done with the lying and sneaking around that is the month of December. Sam is so smart–how can he not know that there is no way a jolly fat man can fly a sleigh loaded with gifts around the world? The couch is not a fire engine. I am not really a fairy. He is not really a Ninja Turtle. Surely he does know, right?

A few days ago as I was tucking him into bed, Jackie appeared from under the pile of blankets and stuffed animals. I tucked her into Sam’s arms and covered them both up, all warm and snug.

Sam smiled, then looked at me seriously. He freed his arms from under the covers and lifted Jackie closer to my face. “Mama,” he announced. “This is a hare, not a jackalope. Jackalopes are only in my imagination. They are not real. It’s only in my head. Jackie is just a hare.”

I never questioned Jackie’s jackalope-ness to Sam. So where is this moment of clarity coming from?

I found myself heartbroken as I left Sam’s room that evening. Having Jackie downgraded to a hare–not even a bunny! A hare! So cold and clinical–made me sad in a way I did not expect. The world seemed a bit less colorful now that there were no jackalopes in it. And the fact that it was my little boy’s world that suffered this loss was just too much. I was impressed that at his age he knows the difference between his imagination and the real world–that he knows what “imagination” is–but I also wished that the blurring of those lines between what is real and what isn’t could go on just a bit longer.

I’ve known that Jackie was just a plain, old, gray bunny from the moment she was scanned at the cash register on our way out of the store. But I said nothing. I believed in her magical powers and saw her imaginary antlers on her head.

So by the next morning, I resolved that I will believe in ancient tombs and treasures, in monsters in the bath tub, in the leaf fairies and the secret cave that is our guest bathroom. I will not make our elf disappear nor will I question the existence of Santa next year. I will keep all the stories going as long as I can–as long as Sam believes them.

The incident with Jackie made me realize that I can trust Sam’s judgment, that as he gets older he will decide when and how to give up the stuff of childhood. There is no need for me to take them away. Life is way too real and sobering at times–and will get even more so as Sam gets older.

Why shouldn’t he always believe in jackalopes?

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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