My inner child, in person

She wanted a balloon. Red Robin had a bin of them, un-inflated, at the hostess booth. With no employees nearby, Simone reached in and picked one out. I didn’t mind, but the hostess looked a little cross as she came up and offered to seat us. I’m sure it’s verboten to let customers touch the contents of the hostess booth. Still we kept the limp, pink balloon and took it with us to our table. Simone (not her real name) was more interested in it, and in just about everything around us, than she was in ordering food. I kept it in my hand, and made us finish most of our meals before I put the balloon to my lips and blew it up for her. It was less than ideally plump, but we had fun batting it gently across the small table to each other.

We soon realized that, given the pathetic job I’d done at blowing it up, the balloon wasn’t even energetic enough to float at the end of a string. So we grabbed one of the already-inflated balloons on our way out of the restaurant. I carried the limp one back to the car while Simone carried the new, vibrant orange one, keeping a tight hold as the wind tried to loosen it. To her it became a lively pet on a leash. In the car, she talked to it and coaxed it onto her lap. It was a boy, and the other (pink) balloon was its sister. I agreed to let brother and sister share the backseat while we drove back to Simone’s house. When I dropped her off, I had to promise the pink balloon that I would play with it.

A child’s imagination yields constant surprises. I thought I had a reasonably good imagination, at least for a grown-up, until I started mentoring a seven-year-old girl (who recently turned eight). Every object we encounter plays a role belied by its mundane appearance. Pieces of tree bark are life-giving talismans to fortify us in a battle against trolls in the park. A dirty pen cap found on the street is a magical paintbrush. A pine branch, when dragged along the ground after a rain, is a dog that likes to play in puddles.

Simone, the girl, acts as herself only 70 percent of the time. Sometimes she is a cat, playing with my real-life cat toys and emitting crazed feline sounds. When she’s wearing her special jacket with hidden pockets, she is a spy. In the backseat of my car, when she gets bored, she likes to play my mad-scientist daughter who has a secret lab in our house. In there she builds robots, some of which fight bad guys and some of which stay home to cook delicious meals so that I don’t have to do the work.

Simone remembers all these storylines. “Remember that time we used these to get power?” she asked a couple of weeks ago, poking at the layer of bark on an evergreen. I told her, definitely, that I remembered. I recall spending at least ten minutes gathering hunks of bark from a tree at Creston Park, and trying not to drop them as we ran across the grass to fight imaginary trolls.

I don’t always feel like playing. I want to talk to the real girl so I can learn about her joys, her pet peeves, and her dreams. But it’s also part of my job to accommodate and encourage that expansive, creative mind of hers. Maybe it’s also my job to show her the links between imagination and real life: to foster the notion that some of her ideas can be brought to fruition. Building intelligent robots? Not many people get to do that, but plenty of girls grow up to be women scientists working in labs (even if the labs aren’t secret). Living on a farm? That becomes a slimmer possibility as the world modernizes, but she can definitely learn to ride a horse—her favorite animal—and aspire to keep one of her own. Fighting trolls? Well … that will live on in the legend of our relationship.

Of course I want to model good adult behavior for Simone. I want her to understand what it means to be a good citizen, and a kind and responsible person. However, a friend of mine suggested that playtime might be the most important learning experience I can give her. And I find that playtime is important to me as well. It forces me to engage a seldom-used imagination as I become a character in the wild stories she devises. It tests the boundaries of my patience and humility, when I feel at a loss for how to respond and part of me wants to fold my arms and say, pouting, “I don’t want to play this anymore.”

That’s my inner child, right there, and it’s good for me to interact with her even when she’s being ornery. According to the therapists I have spoken with and liked, the inner child never goes away. She persists, despite her fragility, and needs plenty of love. Isn’t that true for all of us grown-ups? We ought to let our inner kids out to play more often. If you haven’t yet had the joy of gleaning life lessons from a child—you can take my word for this one.

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