Worried About the Avocado

Glancing down at a questionnaire Niko’s doctor had handed me on the way out of the office today, one item stood out: Frequently worried or afraid. I was supposed to select the degree to which the description might be true: Not at all; Somewhat; A lot, or some similar scale. I sighed as I checked off A lot.

Worried or fearful aren’t words the average observer might immediately think of as descriptors for my ebullient son. He is curious about absolutely everything, full of questions about life, death, dinosaurs, the solar system, you name it. His questions are thoughtfully designed to extract every possible drop of knowledge from the mind of his conversational partner. Nothing makes him happier than learning that Deinonychus’s teeth were sharp as steak knives, or North American porcupines have barbed quills.

But give him two minutes of silence in the car, or the peaceful quiet of his bed at night, and his mind begins roiling with the ramifications of all these facts. Will a porcupine’s quills HURT us? But why? It’s not nice to hurt people. Why did that bird die? Will I die? When? Will you still love me if I die… or if you die?

Tonight, nearly two hours had passed after putting Niko to bed…after hugs, kisses, cuddles, reassurances, tucking in yet again, soothing the panic of the realization Stuffy had been left in the car, rescuing Stuffy, more hugs, more kisses, ditto for Stuffy too… After all that, I was thinking yearningly of my own bed when I heard a small, anxious
voice. “Moommmmmmyyyyyy!”

I opened his door. “What’s wrong?”

“I need you. I really really neeeeeeed you.”

Usually I can withstand even the most heartfelt neeeeeed, but this one sounded more urgent than usual. I climbed onto his bed and cuddled beside him, any hope for an early night vanishing. “Why do you need me?”

We talked about loneliness, about how far away Mom seemed at night. I reminded him that really I was very close, just a few steps away, and showed him how close his sister was, too — just right next to him, on the other side of the wall. He seemed to relax for a moment, and then in a rush the real problem came out.

“When I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom” — and here his voice wobbled, grew thick with tears — “I almost started to cry.”

“Why did you almost cry?”

“I didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. I was just nervous.”

“What part of school made you feel nervous?”

“Dramatic play. I was worried about dramatic play.”

Dramatic play is not typically a concern for Niko. He loves costumes, always has, and this winter, after a huge amount of effort from his preschool teacher, he had a breakthrough: he discovered his imagination and the joy of pretending. His excessively literalist tendencies make those ventures into make-believe all the more delight-filled. And he often mentions the dramatic play center as one of his favorites. So it was with growing puzzlement that I dutifully asked, “Why were you worried about dramatic play?”

“It’s the wooden food. I’m worried about the avocado.”

Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh… “The…the avocado
is worrying you?”

“I just don’t want to eat it. I really don’t like avocados.”

Avocados. This child was lying awake for two hours worrying about the possibility that he might have to pretend to eat a wooden avocado. TWO HOURS. It turns out that it was a social dilemma: he wanted to participate and be a server, but what if — oh, the horror! — what if someone asked for the avocado? “If someone else asks for the avocado, you don’t have to eat it, do you?” I pointed out. Not that simple, of course: what if they offered him a bite? “It’s pretend. So you just pretend to eat it, and pretend you like it. Or you say no thank you. Or you take a pretend bite and say it’s not your favorite and you’d rather try a, a, a tomato.” Problem solved. Whew! After two…well, now almost three…hours of obsessing over a toy avocado, his mind was finally peaceful enough to sleep.

Yes, if a toy avocado can cause such havoc, I think it’s safe for me to check off “A lot” beside Frequently worried. Lying awake for three hours, pondering the social implications of pretend serving a toy food he himself does not care for…
What a boy.


Abracadabra MOMMY!

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.”

“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.

Niko loves riding the scooter at preschool.