My son is an only child, and the only child of two intellectual, semi-introverted people at that. His dad and I would rather read a book or study a website than go out and socialize with strangers. Our friends are largely childless, academic people, and we’re the weird ones who did the procreation thing. We live in a childless neighborhood (not of our choosing; it just kind of happened that way), and so the kid (SC) doesn’t have a lot of time to learn social skills with other kids. Daycare and school has helped, and he does play with his cousin pretty often. But when I do give him a chance to play with other kids, he’s bossy and opinionated. His playing styles seem to be OFF! (playing by himself or doing his own thing) or ON! (running, jumping, playfighting), and he hasn’t mastered that in-between, calm level of involvement. He wants to do what he wants to do, and if other kids don’t agree with that, he’s done. Typical only-child syndrome.
I do a lot of things with SC. We do crafts, and we read a lot, and we bake and stuff. We play board games and card games. However, he’s kind of a huge Star Wars fan, and I suppose I’ve watched all the Star Wars movies in the past, but I couldn’t tell you who most of the characters are, or what the plot is. They’re in space and there was some weird incestuous thing with Luke and Leia, and when I was 4 I made my mom put my hair up in buns like Leia all the time. And there’s Chewbacca, and he’s the best. He reminds me of my boyfriend. Anyway, I digress. SC has somewhere in the area of 7,000 Star Wars figures. He likes to hang out in his room and re-create scenes from the movies. My kid is typically pretty creative, so I always thought this was strange, but it was his room and his toys, so I didn’t try to involve myself with all of that.
Today, after I made breakfast, I wandered into SC’s room. He was playing. I curled up on his bed and pointed out a book that we had both enjoyed in the past, My Lucky Day, by Keiko Kasza. Since he’s a good reader, I said to him, “I bet you could read that to ME now.” He smiled, and got the book. We sat together and he read it to me, while I helped him with a few words. After he was done, he said to me, “Will you play with me?” Before I could suggest a board game or other slightly geeky pastime, he held up two Star Wars dudes and smiled winningly.
I sighed. I’m good at all the other stuff — the reading, the writing, the crafts, the playing outside (to some extent). I like taking him sledding and on picnics and to museums and the zoo. But getting on the floor and emulating Star Wars? That is out of my comfort zone. Still, I nodded and smiled back (it’s my kid! he’s cute!), and I grabbed a masculine figure. . I made him dance, and then I said, “Hi! I’m Joe! Watch me disco!” SC frowned. “He’s ANNAKIN SKYWALKER! He doesn’t dance!”
“How do you know?” I asked. “I bet he danced a lot. You don’t see his whole life.”
SC shook his head. “We’re going to recreate the scene from the Clone Wars. Do you want to be the Good Guys or the Bad Guys?”
“We have to recreate the movie? Why can’t we just make up a story?”
That was met with a glare.
“Okay, okay. I’ll be the Good Guys.”
Another glare. “NO, Mommy. *I’M* always the good guys.”
I shrugged, and started to play. Although he knew the movies and what was supposed to happen, it was obvious that I did not. I would randomly grab non-Star Wars figures and insert them into the action. Darth Vader rode a brontosaurus. Shaggy from Scooby Doo had an imaginary light saber fight with Yoda. These alterations in script elicited both giggles and then stern admonishment from my kid. It was funny, he would tell me, but it wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I had to follow the script.
It shocked me, honestly. My kid is SO creative. He’s hilarious. He’s artistic. I love seeing the stuff he comes up with. I thought back to how I was at his age. I had my Barbies, and I made up stories about them all the time. A lot of times, the Barbies would be caught in some natural disaster on top of my bed, and I would have to decide which ones were the most important ones so I could save them first. Other times, I would mix up my Barbies and my Sylvanian Families and these knock-off Barbie-type dolls that were families with babies, and they would all get involved in some crazy adventure. I had a very rich fantasy life inside my head, and it came out when I played with my Barbies. SC has a pretty good imagination… so why didn’t it translate to his Star Wars characters? It didn’t make sense.
After we played some movie-script scenes, I suggested an alternate scene. “What if we mix up some of your guys? You have a whole toy box of random toys. We should play with ALL of them.”
SC frowned. “No! We have to go by the story.”
Suddenly, I saw one of the areas that he had never developed, since he’s grown up an only child. This was one of the reasons that he sometimes had trouble playing with other children. It was HIS way, or nothing. He couldn’t compromise. He couldn’t spend time playing someone else’s game. In addition, he was caught in this weird cycle where he couldn’t see the movie characters as toys that could do other things than what happened in the movie. His thinking was very rigid. As a pretty weird, non-traditional person, I knew that I had to do something.
I thought for a minute. Then I said, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to play your way for 20 minutes, and then we’ll play my way for 20 minutes.” At first, he was not happy about this. I explained to him that people had to compromise in order to play together happily. That way, both people got what they wanted. Grudgingly, he agreed that we could try to play my way.
So first, we attacked some people the way he wanted to. It was some scene from one of the movies. I have no idea which one. I got to make light saber sounds with my mouth, so that was fun. And after 20 minutes, I told him that it was my turn. He was actually pretty happy to agree — I think he was curious to see what I would come up with.
Using the random toys in his room, I set the stage. A small gray brain-shaped stress squeeze toy became the mind-control brain on the planet. His stuffed lion was the fierce animal protecting the brain. A melee of Star Wars characters, dinosaurs, Scooby Doo characters, creepy bunny figurines from my mother, and Spiderman villains became the mind-controlled army protecting the brain. A rival army, which included more of the same, was on the good side. Together, we rescued the mind-controlled army, nursed them back to our side, and then eventually found some helmets to block us from the mind control and sent some of our best people in to destroy the lion and the brain. By the end of our 20 minutes, we had saved the planet from certain destruction.
The reaction? SC was DELIGHTED. He couldn’t stop talking about how cool it was to make something up, how much fun it was to mix different characters. It was like he hadn’t allowed himself to break out of that box and use his creativity in a new way. He rambled on about all the different ways he could mix his action figures, and who could work together in cross-series stories. It was like his mind had been opened by one 40-minute playing session.
Although I didn’t want to end our playtime with an Afterschool Special-like discussion, I gently reminded him that he hadn’t wanted to play MY version at the beginning, and that he had ended up having a great time. We talked about how it was kind of cool to play other peoples’ games, and that you could learn a lot from going out of your comfort zone.
My hope is that, eventually, he will be more willing to play with other people, to compromise on their game choices and their opinions. I don’t want him to not let his own side be heard, but I want him to listen, too. I really think that this might help his relationship with other kids, in the long run. And even if it doesn’t, I’m proud that I’ve helped open up a new outlet for his creativity.
Featured image is mine (from the actual battle!)