When my children were younger, and people would inevitably remark about how well they “entertained themselves,” I would reluctantly acknowledge that I encouraged them by ignoring them.
I never neglected my children, and I was enchanted by them–I read them picture books for hours, spoke to them only in my non-native but nearly fluent Hebrew, invented silly songs about our daily routines, and played endless games of Candyland and Brochos Lotto. But I also left them to play alone or with each other while I curled up with a book on the couch. I wanted them to develop their inner lives, strengthen their habits of the mind and spirit, and I needed quiet time for my own flights of imagination, not to mention Shabbat afternoon naps.
My daughters were always content to read, but my son often preferred to play board games during “let Ima (Mom) rest” time. This might have presented an opportunity for sibling conflicts if George had not arrived on the scene.
At first, I assumed my son was playing against himself, but he quickly informed us of George’s presence. Like his mother and sisters, George never let him win just because he was younger. George also never cleaned up the board at the end of a game.
I considered the invention of an imaginary opponent to be an indication of my son’s healthy psycho-social development; even during his magic years–when the line between reality and fantasy is blurry–my son seemed to understand that George wasn’t real. I never worried that George would overstay his welcome, since he only appeared when the rest of us were unavailable to play.
George visited, after a long absence, on a recent Shabbat afternoon when I was ignoring my kids. My now 10-year-old son was sitting on the floor of the family room, carefully examining the Chinese Checkers board, when his teenaged sister interrupted his thoughts: “How are you playing that game against yourself?”
“I’m not. I’m playing with George,” he replied.
Well, that got my attention. But I pretended to be engrossed in my book. This is an excellent parent-as-spy maneuver to gain insight to children’s inner lives. My daughter continued her interrogation:
“George? He’s back? Where has he been all these years?”
“Well, he was in prison for three years and he just got out, because he was wrongfully convicted,” my son explained calmly.
“Wrongfully convicted of what crime?!” My daughter was as incredulous as I was. Still, I kept my nose in my book.
“Manslaughter. There was a car accident, but George wasn’t driving.”
I realize that having an imaginary friend may be healthy, adaptive behavior, but should a parent be concerned to discover that this friend leads an imaginary life of crime? Also, what books containing the phrase “wrongfully convicted” are on the Independent Readers shelves of the school library?
I can’t help myself. I place my book in my lap and make eye contact with my son. I try to keep my tone of voice gentle: “Three years for vehicular manslaughter doesn’t seem realistic to me.”
“I know,” he agrees. “They let him out early because he was wrongfully convicted,” he says with renewed conviction.
“Hmm…” I have already turned my face back to my book, but my mind is preoccupied.
Did I ignore them too much, allowing their inner lives to overcook when I thought I’d left them simmering? Moreover, can George’s criminal behavior be used against me in a court of law, as evidence of my “parenting skills,” or lack thereof?
“So, is George back for good now?” my daughter asks her brother.
“No. He just drops by to play games when no one else wants to play against me.”
What a relief…I really want to finish this novel before Havdalah.