- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

It was the night before auditions for the middle school musical, and Jimmy needed a shot of confidence. So I did what I always do. I took him to my closet.

There, nestled between sweaters and pants and dresses, the weight of fabric absorbing the sound within, Jimmy belted out a verse of “New York, New York” while I stood outside the door.

For reasons that probably are well-documented somewhere in psychological literature, Jimmy can only sing for me when there’s a door between us. He won’t sing in the car or the kitchen or up in his room.

Although he’ll nervously stand in front of several teachers and the director of the show and sing his audition piece, performing it in front of me is excruciating. I discovered this last year when he tried out for “Twinderella,” the untold story of Cinderella’s little-known twin brother, Bob.

Rather than attempt to get Jimmy to feel comfortable serenading me with his audition piece, I have learned to work around his fear and focus instead on helping him learn the song. “Just pretend I’m not here,” I said through the door.

The first few times through, I sang along from my bedroom, urging him to follow the melody. The last time through, he sang it solo and captured almost all of the tune, give or take. When it comes to exact notes in a melody, Jimmy is a “generalist.”

“You’re going to be great,” I said. “Just be fearless. That’s the important thing.” I figure it’s more important to show the director he’s willing to get into character than it is to sing well, not to mention that there’s hardly a boy in the entire middle school who can be relied on vocally.

At the risk of being called a stage mother, I confess that I make Jimmy try out for the play. (Actually, I made him try out last year. This year it was his idea.)

It’s not that I harbor any notions about my children becoming stars of the Great White Way. It’s that I want them to appreciate the value of the arts in a well-rounded life.

Admittedly, this is a lesson you can learn by joining a choir or taking piano lessons or learning how to draw and paint. Unlike those arts activities, however, the play also provides the chance to do something children are certain they have outgrown.

The play offers the chance to pretend.

There comes a time when all children give up playing pretend, but I’m convinced that, deep down, they miss it. Let’s face it; you can’t really continue pretending into adolescence and adulthood. If you do, it’s called being “delusional,” and you usually have to take some sort of medication.

For children, though, playing pretend is the route to healthy development. Experts even say “quality” pretend play facilitates higher-level cognition. (I’m not sure how they define “quality.”)

Pretend play used to occupy hours of my children’s days. There were elaborate scenarios that involved living in New York City high-rises or being stranded at sea or discovering ancient civilizations. Most of the game of pretend was spent figuring out what the names of the ancient people were, as in, “I get to be Ashley,” and, “Let’s say my name is Princess Heather.”

Pretend play transcended their various ages, too. Everyone could play, the more the better, and each person’s contribution was equally valid (OK, not always, but in theory anyway).

In a pretend world, the eight years between my oldest and youngest children melted like icebergs. (Let’s say the icebergs are heading toward an uncharted island, and let’s say I’m the president of the island and there’s a tribe of headhunters there, and let’s say we all get amnesia.)

Oops. I get carried away just thinking about it.

I remember one summer at the beach when my children’s favorite pretend game was “rescue team.” One of them pretended to be drowning while the others ran to her aid, strapping her to a makeshift gurney and wrapping her in towels.

The game was so realistic they started scaring neighbors in the surrounding cottages, so I made them alter the premise. That’s when the person in the water got amnesia and the rest had to find clues about who she was.

I think this is why, despite rehearsing in the closet and facing the prospect of singing in front of his buddies, my son — like his sisters — is drawn to the stage. Auditioning is just the price you pay to get into the game of pretend.

This year’s middle school production is “Annie Jr.,” an hourlong version of the Broadway musical. There aren’t many parts for boys. Jimmy got the role of Drake, the butler. Not a big lead, but lots of stage time and a good costume.

Then again, what Jimmy really gets is the chance to pretend he’s a butler in the 1930s, serving an imaginary breakfast to a pretend orphan while working on the staff of a friend who’s pretending to be the rich and powerful (imaginary) Daddy Warbucks.

Because it’s the middle school production, you don’t call it “playing pretend,” you call it “acting.”

For a 12-year-old boy, it’s the closest thing you can get to a game you used to love.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 19 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She is the author of “The Perfect World Inside My Minivan — One Mom’s Journey Through the Streets of Suburbia,” a compilation of her columns. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth hicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth. [email protected]

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