Friday, July 15, 2011

Mama Bear Sees Red

You should meet my son, Mikey.  He's two and a half.  Somehow, about a year ago, Mikey did something amazing: he stopped being a vaguely humanish being with all the burden of a rowdy puppy and started being a real person.  Much to my delight, it turns out he's a genuinely cool person.  He's clever, confident, sensitive, and creative with a sharp wit and a hard head.  (I realize that all parents think these things about their kids, but a lot of them are wrong.  I'm not.)

Mikey has always had a rich imagination.  Perhaps it's a hallmark of an only child, or maybe it's just Mikey, but he's perfectly happy to play by himself.  As his vocabulary increases, Joe and I have become privy to the worlds being constructed in our boy's mind.  They are vivid and exciting and silly, comprised of all the miscellaneous bits of information that enter his understanding each day.  For me, it's a joy and a privilege to join Mikey in imaginaryland for a few hours each day.

About a month ago, I left town for a few days.  The boys celebrated my absence with pizza, beer (for Joe), and a DVD set of the Superman movies.  By the time I returned, Superman had Mikey's imagination in a ferocious grip.  Mikey insists on being called Superman.  If he had his way (he often doesn't) he would wear his Superman shirt and cape every day.  He carries his new Superman doll, calls his play tent the Fortress of Solitude, and asks to watch Superman at every opportunity.  He has memorized lines from the movies (current favorites: "That's my beat, Chief!" and "Bye bye, baby!") and runs through the house pretending to push down walls and rescue people from the crashed helicopter.

Joe and I haven't seen any reason to stop this behavior.  It's harmless, creative fun.  He wants to be called Superman?  Fine, we'll call him Superman.  Wants us to tie a blanket around his shoulders cape-style?  Groovy.  And last Sunday, when he decided that Joe and I would henceforth be known as Batman and Wonder Woman... well, I've always wanted that invisible jet.

It's just a phase, right?  

Mikey attends a private Montessori school, where he has thrived since day one.  Today, the lead guide in his school pulled Joe aside for a chat when he arrived to pick up our son.  On his way home, Joe called me to share.  Audibly shaken, Joe described how the (well-meaning, I'm sure) guide told him she believes Mikey may be showing signs of an identity disorder and that this Superman fixation must be stopped, lest it result in permanent damage to his identity.  She asked if there has been some major change or event in our home that may have resulted in Mikey's identity confusion.  Basically, she scared the shit out of him by convincing him that our preschooler has had some sort of psychotic break.

Through the red haze of my anger, I think I understand what's at the crux of this.  Mikey asks people to call him Superman, and twenty other kids get jealous and decide they want to be superheroes, too.  I completely understand how that would be disruptive to the school, and I would have no problem at all with her asking us to keep the Superman game at home.  But I am livid at the mere suggestion that this fantasy behavior indicates some sort of urgent psychological crisis.  I can't help but think that it would be far more damaging to a creative child to tell him to stop imagining, stop pretending. 

So now I'm asking.  Parents?  Teachers?  Opinionated people?  Am I overreacting here, or did this guide step over the line?


  1. First, I would like to know what her degree is in. It sounds like she is thinking from a psych or play therapy perspective.

    Second, this is not an "in passing" conversation. If she really felt there was a problem (especially one as serious as a personality disorder) she should had set a conference with you and the director.

    Third, I believe Maria Montessori would be ashamed of her. She valued the mind of a child and did her best not to stifle what is happening with them.

    Last, you DON'T tell a parent this on a Friday when they have no way to ask question or seek guidance for at least 2 1/2 days. In your case much longer (as I am sure she was aware of).

    If it were me I would be calling the director asking for a conference with her and his teacher with an apology on the agenda!

  2. Thanks, Joy. I was starting to think I was overreacting, so I'm so glad to hear your thoughts. The guide in question is also the director/owner of the school. The kicker is, we love her. Mikey adores her and she has always had such wonderful, constructive advice for us. She's also usually a fantastic resource for understanding Montessori. That's why I was so floored by this - not only squelching a child's creative urges, but actually pathologizing them.

    We had a chat with Mikey over dinner about how some times are pretend times and others aren't. It took about ten minutes for him to understand and concede to the idea that he can be Superman during pretend time, but sometimes he needs to be Mikey. Some confusion, huh?

  3. We are in the high gear of imagination too. Sometimes Ayen is a race car, sometimes he is a pirate. I think it just comes down to boundaries - sometimes it's o.k. to run around like a car, other times he needs to be Ayen. I think it is all normal because they are pushing boundaries at this age, as they should, and they can learn when to pretend and when not to pretend.

    I don't think she stepped over the line, but I do think it deserves a proper meeting with both you and Joe in the room. That way both of you can ask questions and have a chance to respond to hers. By no means should it be just a dumping of information from one side.

  4. Over reaction on the part of the teacher. Inappropriate comments by the teacher. Conference and apology to you should follow.

  5. Well, maybe she was having a bad day, or maybe Mikey annoyed her today with his imaginative play, but if it were me I would still request a conference. It may be uncomfortable, but she needs to understand the effect her comments had on you and Joe. Also, you will probably gain some perspective on why she said what she said. Also, you need to have a plan that is consistent both at school and at home. It is good to talk with Mikey, but there needs to be clear communication between you and the teacher so that Mikey is getting clear directions and guidance that everyone is happy with.
    What you don't want is for this imaginative play to become a "big deal" because that could possibly bring out confusion, acting out, and him developing an even stronger desire to be superman. He is a little strong willed. ;0)

  6. 25 years ago Arthur was a ghost-buster and St. George; he imagined he was the good-guy, overcoming danger & bravely slaying evil for the well-being of the community. Since then in real-life, he's been an Eagle Scout, lifeguard, river guide and works on political campaigns. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a connection between imaginary role play and character development. But, it's a chicken or egg? sort of thing. I'd raise an eyebrow or two if Mikey was Lex Luther! And, I'd like to think that somehow role-playing the wife of a confused priest for a One-Act Play might give a high school teenager some vague insight into marriage!!
    So, it sounds like you're committed to imaginary role play as a positive in Mikey's development. I say... Good. Stick to your guns. I've seen as a parent and as a Theatre teacher that role-play is not just "child's play"; it can be a "big deal" in a very positive way. But, Mikey doesn't need to see or hear the adults he loves angry or arguing about it so he'll wonder about what he's doing "wrong". I agree with "ourblessedmess" "r:)"&... now that you've cooled off, talk with the teacher as if you truly do love her (we all make mistakes!): tell her what you and Joe have decided,explain how you would like for her to help Mikey set boundaries, and if you can't come to a compatible agreement, I agree with those who say to move him to another but better school. In all my years as a teacher and having moved my son to a private school for 3rd & 4th grade, I've never seen it benefit the child to be in the middle while parents and the school wrangle. Life (and especially childhood) is too short and in Austin, I would think there are plenty of great schools to choose from. Best wishes to you and yours!