What it's like to live with Pirate Rusty and Sergeant Bob

My son, Ben, had been in kindergarten for just one week before he assumed another identity. I got the first inkling the day the teacher pulled me aside after school.

"Your son has told us that his real name is Rusty," she said, "and that he was born on a pirate ship in the South Pacific, which is kind of strange since it isn't on any of the school records."

I wasn't quite sure what to say to this.

Then she continued: "He's got quite an imagination, and I highly recommend that you encourage it."

I let out a sigh of relief and promised her I would.

However, this didn't keep me from being surprised when he came home from school several days later and announced he would only respond to being called "Sergeant Bob."

Out of desperation I started talking to other parents of 5-year-olds to see if their kids were doing this, too. They immediately commiserated with me.

"My daughter," one parent said, "is insisting I curtsy and call her Princess Bellississima."

"That's nothing," a mother said. "Last night my son, Tommy, barked all the way through dinner."

I admit, although this information was comforting, it didn't make my son any easier to live with.

"Mom, slow down!" Sergeant Bob ordered from the back seat of the car. This was followed by "Mom, speed up!" and "Mom, use your blink... Hey, give me back my whistle!"

By the end of the week, I had racked up a whole pile of red-crayoned tickets for all kinds of law-breaking infractions such as serving ice cream without the chocolate sauce on the side, filling a cup only halfway with milk, and one exceptionally large ticket for turning up a Beatles song on the car radio too loud.

Then there was the time Ben was inspired by the toy kitchen in the play area at school.

"What'll you have?" he asked one night as I sat in the recliner watching television. He stood over me with a pad of paper in one hand and a pencil perched jauntily over one ear. I thought I could detect a slight Brooklyn accent.

After a long pause, I eventually asked for a grilled cheese sandwich on wheat bread, just so he'd move out of the way.

"We don't have that," he said, impatiently tapping his pencil on the pad.

"How about a corn dog?"

"Nope."

"Well, what do you have?"

"Gum and toast."

"OK, then, a slice of toast with gum on the side, please."

Needless to say, keeping up with Ben wasn't easy. One minute he was an average kindergartner watching cartoons in his room, and the next he was a five-star chef in a trendy restaurant serving me a Juicy Fruit sandwich.

To make matters worse, not only did my son assume new identities, he gave me supporting roles to play as well. Each day my life became more and more like being trapped in a series of really bad one-act plays.

Once, in a single afternoon, I had to be a dental patient who needed a filling, a child buying an ice-cream cone, a little girl who'd just lost a kitten, and the tooth fairy's helper.

It wasn't just me. My friend Linda, who has a 5-year-old daughter, spent the whole afternoon playing a yapping dog running through sprinklers. Just try explaining that to neighbors who don't know you well.

Of course, I could have put my foot down. I could have said: "No, I will not be the Dalmatian on the truck while you are the helpful fire chief; I'm the parent here, and you're just a kindergartner who hasn't even been down the big slide on the playground yet."

But it just seemed wrong to do that.

Besides, all of the parenting books assure me that role-playing is a healthy sign of an active imagination. And if properly encouraged by the parent, it can foster creative thinking and increased self-esteem.

So I did what any other well-meaning and slightly weary parent would do: I went along with it.

Each afternoon, depending on what happened at school that day, I resigned myself to being a cafeteria worker handing out milk and fruit cups, a grouchy school bus driver, the teacher holding the flag while the class says the Pledge of Allegiance, or the school librarian reading a story about a lost puppy.

And then a funny thing happened: I began to enjoy it. Although, truth be told, I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's because I got used to it or, perhaps, deep down I had always wanted an amateur acting career.

But I think the real reason is because, by acting out these crazy scenarios, Ben and I were connecting. And, in a subtle way, they give me insight on how he sees the world.

Now, months later, Ben still has an active imagination, but I've gotten better about playing along.

The other day when I was making dinner, I turned to Ben and said brightly, "How about if I play a cook on a big sailing ship, and you be a helpful pirate who washes his hands and puts all of the silverware and dishes on the table?"

He looked skeptical for a moment. Then he said, "Well, OK. But only if you're sure I get to be the head pirate."

"Of course you do, honey," I assured him.

I'm beginning to see advantages to all this make-believe.

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