Four-year-olds are totally method actors. Take my son Jacob, for instance. We have a Puff the Magic Dragon picture book. It features these gorgeous illustrations of the shared adventures of Puff and his best friend, Little Jackie Paper. In the images, Jackie Paper is wearing a short-sleeved yellow T-shirt, brown pants and light blue sneakers. Since this book came into our home, Jacob has become obsessed with Little Jackie Paper. He listens to the CD that was included with the book over and over again, and he wants to dress up as the character often.
The illustrations by Eric Puybaret inspired my son
We had a problem, though. Jacob had a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt, a sleeveless yellow T-shirt, and some short-sleeved yellow T-shirts with images on the front. However, none of these quite fit the bill of a plain, short-sleeved yellow T-shirt. I tried presenting alternatives, but Jacob wasn’t happy with any of them. And brown pants – well, he simply had none. He had beige and grey and blue and denim and black pants. However, none of them were quite the correct shade for Jacob. None of them allowed him to feel like Little Jackie Paper.
A solution to the dilemma was found when I agreed to use Jacob’s Christmas money in order to buy him Little Jackie Paper clothes. It seemed logical to me, especially because brown pants and a plain yellow T-shirt are pretty basic items to have on hand, and they can be worn long after the obsession ends. In the end I bought one pair of pants and two shirts, just because I know what children do to shirts. On the day they arrived in our mailbox, Jacob was overjoyed. At last, he could look the way he thought he should look.
It doesn’t end there, of course. Becoming Little Jackie Paper isn’t just about the right shirt and pants. Becoming Little Jackie Paper is so much more. Jacob has decided that Jackie Paper wears only one kind of socks. While these socks aren’t pictured in the book, Jacob refuses to bend. Jacob has also decided that Little Jackie Paper must wear shoes at all times. He has a pair of shoes that he has dubbed his Little Jackie Paper shoes. If he is not wearing every single item in his costume, then he is not happy.
Sometimes Jacob’s devotion to always wearing exactly the same thing, and being addressed in the correct way, lands me in hot water. For instance, if he’s wearing his Little Jackie Paper clothes and I call him Jacob, he refuses to answer. But there’s a trick. If he’s only partly dressed in his Little Jackie Paper clothes, he’s still Jacob, and he’s offended if I call him Little Jackie Paper. For example, earlier this week he was wearing his Little Jackie Paper shirt, pants, and socks. As I helped him put on his shoes, I made the mistake of calling him Little Jackie Paper. He stopped me, and looked at me very gravely as he put his hand on my arm. The he said, “But Mama, I’m not Little Jackie Paper. See? I only have one shoe on. I need both shoes on to be Little Jackie Paper.”
There’s simply no going halfway when you’re four. And as much as it befuddles me, and leads me to address my son with the wrong name, it is also unspeakably awesome. He immerses himself in a role completely, until even he believes he is that person. And he makes no apology for transforming himself as he pleases, from one person into another, as his imagination suits him.
Have you ever made the mistake of addressing your child by the wrong name, when they were pretending to be someone else? And who do your kids most love to dress up as? I’d love to hear!