His small face was filled with confident hope — no, with absolute faith. He KNEW this was going to work. He held a shiny black straw that the uninitiated might not recognize as a wand. One hand was lifted dramatically; the other held the wand at the ready. He took a deep breath, smile of anticipation growing, as he shouted, “Abracadabra MOMMY!” and tapped my thigh gently.
I’d had no warning. I was lying on the floor as Sofie crawled back and forth over my stomach, occasionally standing to take a hesitant step and then toppling back onto me. Niko had been running around the living room tapping toys. “Abracadabra!” Whatever magic he’d seen with his toys had satisfied him — but only temporarily. Now, he was trying it on a living being.
I saw the glow dim, just a little. “It didn’t work,” he said, genuinely puzzled. I knew that look. Not betrayal, not disillusionment. Not quite. Because he didn’t really believe it. Clearly, something was amiss, but he wasn’t certain what was wrong.
And I wasn’t quite sure how to help him. I’ve read my fair share of parenting books and texts on child development: compulsive reader + Barnes & Noble children’s department employee + a degree in education provides ample opportunity to read all about raising small people. But not a single one gave a tutorial on helping your child succeed in casting magical spells.
“Maybe,” I suggested carefully, “maybe you need more words.”
“Well, for a magical spell, you need to say exactly what you want to happen.” His face cleared. This made perfect sense to him.
“Abracadabra make Mommy disappear!” Again, the gentle tap with the little wand.
Well, now I knew what was supposed to happen. But once again, it hadn’t. He gazed at me hopefully, not ready to give up.
“I think maybe you need some more magical tools,” I told him. “Like…maybe…that blanket?”
His face showed his internal conflict. He considered this for several seconds, expression unchanging as he mulled over the implications of the need for the blanket. Then the 10000000-watt smile returned. “Okay!” Off he went, back he came with his beautiful cars-and-trucks quilt made by a talented friend. He draped it tenderly over my body, folding it back so my face still showed. Then: “Abracadabra make Mommy disappear!” Tap.
I pulled the blanket over my face as quickly as I could. “Did it work?” I called to him.
“Yes! It worked, Mommy! You disappeared!”
Not long ago, this story would have ended differently. Until recently, Niko has had no concept of pretending. He would be sitting on his rocking horse, galloping for all he was worth, and I’d say to him, “Where are you going on Rocking Horsie?” (Another area in which he is lacking in talent is the naming of toys.) And he would skewer me with his scornful gaze: “I’m not going anywhere. Rocking Horsie isn’t a real horse.”
Or he’d climb into a box in the middle of the living room. “This is a rocket ship!” he’d tell me. “Oh, where is that rocket ship going to take you?” I’d ask. Again, that gaze of incredulous scorn: “We’re in the living room, Mommy. It’s not a real rocket ship.”
Last night, Niko was able to transition nearly seamlessly from a deep conviction that Mommy was going to literally disappear with his magic words, to a joyful game of pretend. Watching him enter wholeheartedly into the imaginative play without missing a beat, without collapsing into an anxious and brokenhearted mess because his spell didn’t work, filled me with delight.
I think I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life. That moment when I realized that my son DOES know how to play. And I know who to thank for it. Not me. Not his dad. It’s his preschool teacher. His kind, accepting-of-all-comers (even that boy who was always hitting), generous-hearted teacher, who makes time in the day for imaginative and dramatic play.
Unlike me, she doesn’t lose patience with his reluctance to pretend, walking off to do something more fulfilling than playing with a highly literal child. Instead, she shows him examples of what imaginative play looks like, calling out the names of children who are succeeding: “Look, Daisy is pretending to be a lion. She’s purring because she’s a happy lion. Doesn’t that look like fun?” I haven’t seen this exact scenario happen, but I know from my interactions with her at drop-off and pickup time that this is what she’s doing, all day long. Looking for the goodness in each child and announcing it. “Look at George! He’s walking in line without waving his arms!” “Oh my, look what a good job Dakota is doing cleaning up the blocks.” Each child glows with the observations. And all of them improve with her positive words — the successful ones strive to do even better, while the ones who aren’t there yet work hard to arrive. [Side note: of course, I used made-up names.]
Yes, I know who to thank for the changes I’ve been seeing in Niko. I’m so happy he has a teacher who is gifted with the ability to recognize the best in each person who comes her way. I’m so very happy to see my son playing imaginatively, with abandon and joy. Thank you, Teacher Mary, for giving Niko and me such a precious gift.
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