"I am Tiger Man! I can shoot labor beams from my paws at bad guys and I can fly and I have a hundred other powers too!"

Chicken, 4 years old, stands atop the play structure, stomping his feet and snarling this declaration.

Other kids give him a wide berth.

That's probably for the best - in his eyes, they're probably bad guys, and I don't want to get sued. That's right, twinkie, you BEST be walkin away.

Obviously, I love this kid's imagination. The depth of his curiosity about the world, and his fearlessness, the way he plunges into the pools of his fancy without first dipping a toe. Man, he goes for it. As an adult, beaten down by decades of #society and #media and #becoolkatie and #allthatshit, I'm humbled by his commitment to Tiger Man, the ferocity that does not, at any point, appear to be a game.

When this kid plays, this kid ain't playin'.

Buuuuuuuuut sometimes I worry about his intensity. I'm no Dale Carnegie, but I'm guessing that his imaginative deep dives into roles characterized by extreme brutality and screaming miiiiiiiiiight be an obstacle for him in upcoming social situations. Like, say, birthday parties. Or whatnot.

Chicken is the Russell Crowe of 4-year-olds - he NEVER breaks character on set.

Or in his case, the swing set.

And if all he ever wanted to do was be Tiger Man, lone stomper of the playground, a vigilante, works-alone hero whose roar strikes terror in the hearts of baddies, I wouldn't be writing this blog post. But he doesn't want to always play alone. He's at the point in his life that he's learning how much fun it can be to run with a pack.

And therein lies the problem.

I've been watching him attempt to navigate the inscrutable, inexplicable dynamics of cooperative pretend play. And that shit is... well, it's a rocky road.

First of all, not every kid on the playground even wants to pretend play with a Super Tiger Man. Which, I mean, is obviously their fucking loss, but hey what do I know, I'm just SUPER TIGER MAN'S MOM.

So we're looking at a lot of this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: That's too loud.
Kid: (walks away)

and a lot of this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: (ignores him, scoops more sand)
Kid: (still ignoring him)
Chicken: (grabs scooper)
Kid: Hey!
Chicken: I'M TIGER MAN!
Kid: Gimme my scooper!

and more than one of this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: (bursts into tears)

I've suggested that perhaps running up to a strange kid and screaming into his face that you are a tiger man might not be the most effective invitation to play.

"That's probably pretty scary, Chicken. You're a big, strong, loud boy. Before you start being Tiger Man, you have to say, 'hey, want to play super heroes?' so the kid knows what game you're playing."

So far, he has not taken me up on that suggestion, which means that I have to watch both him and the pediatric psychology papers pretty closely - if specialists report a spike in tiger-related night terrors after Chicken and I spend the day at the playground, then we usually pop on our fedoras and head south for a bit, let the scene cool down before trying again.

We're looking at about a 10% rate of success with the "I AM TIGER MAN" opener right now.

So, okay, one kid out of ten isn't walking away or screaming in terror when my son "introduces" himself. One kid in ten is game. First hurdle, hurdled. (Leapt over? Summited? I don't know, the NBC coverage of Olympic track and field was so bad you guys.)

But then we have this problem:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Kid: I DON'T WANNA BE MONKEY MAN! (walks away)

and this problem:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Chicken: Let's go get some bad guys!
Kid: I wanna do the swings.
Chicken: But...
Kid: (walks away to do swings)

and this problem:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Chicken: Let's go get some bad guys!
Kid: OKAY! I see some by the swings!
Chicken: NO, they're over by the slide!
Chicken: SLIDE!
Kid: SWINGS! (runs away)

There are a billion ways that a game of Tiger Man & Company can go off the rails, and I'm pretty sure we've found literally all of them.

Why do we have such a low rate of success when it comes to Chicken, my smart, sweet, lovely boy, making a damn friend at the playground?

A few reasons come to mind.

1. As previously stated, Chicken has a fucking VISION for this narrative, and while he's smart and sweet and everything, he's also about as flexible as James Fucking Cameron when it comes to "hearing" other people's "ideas" for how he should tell HIS story.

you think
a firefighter
and a tiger
makes more sense
than a tiger and a monkey
you know what i think
is that tigers
eat firefighter faces
for fucking snacktime
with a box of chocolate tiger milk
ass hole

2. Chicken is never less than staggered to discover that another kid has a fucking VISION for HIS own narrative, and that the other kid is about as flexible as James Fucking Cameron when it comes to "hearing" Chicken's "ideas" for how he should tell HIS story.

oh yeah
firefighters eat tiger faces
for breakfast
which is before snack
so by the time the tiger wants to eat the firefighter's face at snack time
he's like
oh no
my face is eaten
including my mouth
ass hole

3. This is actually a really, really hard skill.

In order for two four-year-olds to successfully play pretend together, they have to work both independently and interdependently.

They have to cooperate to negotiate the conditions of the imaginary world they are constructing, and then they have to clash, as characters, in order to further their narrative.

They have to understand when they are planning and when they are playing. This transition has no bell to announce itself.

They have to work at a similar level of intensity so they continue to engage each other without crossing boundaries of safety.

They have to each feel committed and accepting of each other's imaginings.

They have to feel free enough to explore the storyline they want to explore, yet restrained enough to allow their friends the room to explore other storylines at the same time.

They have to pass control of the world back and forth, freely, intuitively, over and over again.

I mean, my kids can barely pass a BALL back and forth freely, much less invisible command of an invisible world.

I just wanted to take a moment today to honor how incredibly hard it is for young kids to not only manipulate their own imaginations, but accommodate the imaginations of others.

I just wanted to share with you how many times Chicken has run off a child in tears, how many times I've had to walk him over to a confused-looking mom, say, "This is the tiger your son is telling you about," and wait until Chicken manages to murmur an apology.

If your kid hasn't found the balance between ferocity and politeness yet, welcome to our club. You can come over to our park anytime - Chicken has some karma that he needs to collect upon and we have only one rule: No clown wigs. Seriously, they scare the living shit out of Chicken, and they make Buster laugh so hard he farts, so it's a pretty sick scene actually.

If you feel like it's your job to make sure your child doesn't grow up to be Batman - lonely, grunting at the help, stalking around in the night, riding a motorcycle for God's sake - you are not alone. If there's anything that strikes more terror into my heart than motorcycles, it's the idea that my son won't make friends this year. That he'll show up on the first day of school fearless, roaring his fierce roars, and that his intensity will scare the children and put off the adults... that when friends won't invite him to play, the grown-ups won't be able to disguise their relief.

No wonder it's so special when two kids click, when they run at the same speed and are able to talk like this:

Chicken: I AM TIGER MAN!
Chicken: Let's find some bad guys!
Kid: Okay!
Chicken: I see some by the slide!
Kid: Let's go!

(long scuffle with some invisible baddies, much grunting and "pew pew pew" laser-gun-type sound effects)

Chicken: Got em!
Kid: Yeah!
Chicken: Now let's put em in jail!
Kid: I don't want to put em in jail.
Chicken: But I want to put em in jail.
Kid: I don't want to put em in jail.

(long pause)

Chicken: Can we put em in jail by the swings?
Kid: Okay!

(running toward swings)



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