Pretend I’m OK with you watching the Harry Potter movies with your older sister, even though you’re only 4. We can face down any fear together. Remember when you told me, “Mama, I’m brave to my darkness?” Pretend I’m brave to your darkness, too…and my own darkness…and the world’s. Pretend I can use any fears Harry Potter stirs up to make you even braver.
I’m chopping onions one day when you say, “Mama, be Draco!”
I get it. It’s not the giant snakes and spiders in Harry Potter that scare you. It’s the bullies, like Draco Malfoy. You’re a wiser 4-year-old than I thought.
Then you say, “You’re Draco, and I’m Pansy Parkinson.”
Wait. You want to be the bully’s girlfriend? Before I can stop myself, I scoff, “Why would you want to be Pansy Parkinson?”
You say, “Pretend Draco’s kissing Pansy.”
You don’t want to play that you’re dating the biggest jerk at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, do you? I turn away from the cutting board to look at you and launch into an enlightening lecture. “Brynn, snobby boys like Draco don’t care about their girlfriends. They only care about impressing people with their rich fathers and famous connections.”
“Pretend Draco’s kissing Pansy,” you say.
Fine. I make a loud, wet kissing sound, then drawl, “Fah-ther says pureblood wizards are the best kissers. Don’t you agree?”
My eyes fill with tears – the damn onions. Pretend I’m not worried about this at all – my daughter wanting to kiss a mean-spirited jerk. Every time you suggest a romantic gesture, I’ll just make Draco as unappetizing as possible. At some point in this imaginary romance, you’ll realize that bad boys make bad boyfriends. Pretend I’m teaching you that.
Our Draco/Pansy relationship lasts for a couple weeks of occasional pretend play. Then one day, as I’m sorting mail, you say, “Mama, be Cedric! And I’ll be Cho.”
Aha! My efforts to turn you off of bad boys have worked! You want to be the girlfriend of a nice guy from Harry Potter, Cedric Diggory! Now I can treat you how I want boyfriends to treat you. “Cho,” I say, “you’re so beautiful and so talented and so smart. I love you so much. Let’s go out for a romantic dinner tonight.”
You’re glowing. See how much better nice boys are?
As I sort the junk mail from the bills, though, I start to worry. Will your high school and college boyfriends really fawn over you this way? Would it be better preparation for life if I gave you a peck on the cheek and said, “I’m going out with the guys to play Quidditch tonight?”
On the other hand, don’t most women settle for mediocre boyfriends and husbands because they haven’t learned what a top-notch mate looks like? I mean, when was the last time your dad planned a romantic outing? Maybe the real problem is that we don’t expect enough from our men.
Pretend whichever way I treat you, as the dashing young Cedric, is the exact way I should treat you to teach you how to be happy in love.
Alas, Cedric’s adoration isn’t enough. I’m washing dishes one day, when you say, “Mama, pretend you’re Harry Potter, and you ask Cho to the Yule Ball.”
I obey. “Cho, would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?”
You scrunch your mouth to one side, pondering. “I’ll have to get back to you,” you say.
“Now,” you command, “be Cedric and ask Cho to the ball,”
I say, in a deeper voice, “Cho, would you like to go to the Yule Ball with me?”
You thrust out your hip and pinch your chin with your thumb and index finger. “I’ll have to think about it.”
I know exactly how to handle this. I say, “If you don’t want to, that’s fine.”
“No,” you say. “I think I do, but Harry asked me, too, and I need to decide.”
Pretend I’m not recoiling in horror because my 4-year-old is a mean girl. I respond in the healthiest way possible. “Oh,” I say, “if Harry asked you first, you should go with him. That’s OK.”
“No,” you say, shrugging and sighing dramatically, “I’ll have to decide who I like better.”
“No, no,” I protest. “Forget I asked. Harry asked you first. You should go with Harry.” I turn to rinse the dishes and pretend to ask another girl to the ball.
When the dishes are done, you grab my pruned hand and drag me to the den. “Pretend you’re Harry and I’m Cho,” you tell me. “We’re at the Yule Ball, and you keep kissing me.”
I plant a slurpy kiss on your cheek.
You look over your shoulder at the imaginary couple across the room. “Mama,” you whisper, “what does Cedric think about Cho kissing Harry?”
“Nothing,” I say. “He’s too busy paying attention to his own date.”
“No,” you say. “Pretend he’s watching and he’s really jealous.”
“Cedric wouldn’t do that,” I say. “He would be too polite to be looking at another girl when he was on a date, and he would want Harry and Cho to have a good time.” I hope you appreciate what good life lessons I’m teaching you here.
“Cedric’s crying,” you tell me.
Pretend I’m totally unphased by my 4-year-old manipulating imaginary boys. This is make-believe, and I’m the mother. Like anything else in life, I can use this. But this time, I’m going to create the teaching moment.
The next time I hear the familiar “Mama, you’re Cedric,” I turn the tables. You’ve morphed from Cho Chang to Ginny Weasley now, but you’re still dividing your affections between Cedric and Harry.
“Ginny,” I say, as Cedric, “I need to break up with you.”
“Why?” you ask.
“Well, it seems like you like Harry, which makes me jealous. And I’m starting to like Cho Chang.”
In real life, you’ve just gotten out of the bath. You smell like baby shampoo and look snuggly in your footie pajamas. “Well,” you say, fixing your hands on your fleece-covered hips, “if you break up with me, I’ll have to kill myself!”
I drop the comb I’ve been pulling through your hair. Where are you getting this?! I don’t recall anyone threatening suicide on our Angelina Ballerina DVDs. I cannot, of course, reward this manipulative behavior. But I don’t want to ignore it either.
“Ginny,” I say, picking up the fumbled comb, “I don’t want you to kill yourself. You really should go see a therapist if you’re that upset. But our relationship is not healthy. I need to break up with you.”
I’ve used so many good techniques here – empathy, empowering advice, a strong I message. I think that should lay to rest the mean girl drama queen once and for all.
“Ginny just killed herself,” you tell me.
I’m not sure I want to play this anymore. Neither do you, for a while; and you seem happy enough. I’ve mostly quit wondering if I should call a therapist.
Then, I’m tapping out emails one day when you say, “Mama, pretend Voldemort is trying to kill Ginny.”
I turn, my mind still on my e-mail, vaguely grateful that the evilest of villains in the wizarding world is here to kill you, not to be your boyfriend. I wave my imaginary wand at you. “Avada Kedavra!” I shout. The killing curse.
You grin. “Nothing happens,” you say. “Ginny’s not dead.”
“Why?” I ask, turning away from my e-mail.
“Because…Harry loves her,” you say.
“Harry loves her, and his love protects her from getting killed. Now Voldemort’s trying to kill Hannah Abbott.”
One by one, Voldemort attempts to kill the students of Hogwarts and fails. Each one, it turns out, is loved by someone – a boyfriend or girlfriend, a friend, a parent. Because of this love, each one is shielded from harm.
Tears well up in my eyes, and there are no onions around. I recognize this magic. This is magic I’ve been practicing since you waved your magic wand and turned me into Draco Malfoy. This is magic I’ve been practicing since the day you were born, since the day your sister was born. I know how this spell works: If I love you enough, you can’t be harmed. You’ll be protected from all the curses the world sends your way – bad boys, mean girls, unrealistic expectations. If we face down every challenge together – the real and the imagined–you’ll go out into the world armed with every defensive spell you need. Nothing – no matter how evil – will ever hurt you.
Let’s pretend that’s for real.