Whither "Pretend?" A Theory


I am blessed to be able to watch my two sons, ages 9 and 7 right now, play every day. They have mountains of Lego, lightsabers, and all manner of toys with which to play. And each and every day, they pretend something new. Just the other day, I noticed Owen (7), running around, jumping over imaginary things, hacking away at other imaginary things, and making noises to accompany the whole scene. From past experience, I know that Owen is busy pretending he’s in a video game. And William (9) will often play right along with him. Sometimes it gets so involved that they declare to each other that they get points, get special abilities, and whatnot.

I used to be able to do that kind of thing, though I’d never heard of a videogame at their age. (Or pretending to be “Pong” didn’t make much sense. One of the two, I’m not sure which.) I used to build spaceships with Lego and pretend my way through storylines, too.

And yet here I am, almost 38 years old, with no power to pretend whatsoever. I sit down to play with them and get lost in the technical details of how these pieces fit with those pieces or, if play involves lightsabers, I usually just end up loosely copying what they are doing because I, for the most part, can’t pretend worth a damn.

What happened between 12 and 38? Did someone reach into my head and pull out my ability to pretend, à la the Haitian? Or did it fall out, like baby teeth? Did it rot away, sloughed off like dead skin? Just where the hell did my ability to pretend go?

I see others who apparently haven’t lost the capability. My mother-in-law, for example, seems to be able to play cars and trucks with the kids just fine. (Just don’t ask her to pretend with a Star Wars storyline.) I struggle to hold my own interest for more than five minutes. What’s up with that?

Upon reflection, I’ve concluded that my ability to pretend turned into something else, what we in the adult world call “inventiveness.” It might also be called “creativity,” but I think that in my context, that of being an engineer, it’s morphed into an ability to invent, something that does require creativity but is usually associated with the making or building of things. Poetry requires creativity, but not as much inventiveness. Designing a new interconnection scheme for your test systems requires inventiveness with a sprinkle of creativity.

Is this right? Is it possible that “pretend” turns into other abilities as we get older? Do some people lose their ability to pretend entirely without having it change into a useful adult skill? And do other people keep the ability to pretend, or even gain additional outlets for pretending without replacing their ability to pretend?

For me, I’m pretty sure the answer is that my ability to pretend changed to the ability to invent, and that’s about it.

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