Living with Mighty Mouse

by Loretta Slota Marshall

© Loretta and William E. Marshall, Children's Television Workshop, 1982

Filling out our almost-four-year-old son Marc's enrollment form for a summer gifted children's workshop had just begun to be fun. Our child's likes: "Trains, books, painting, anything animated, fixing things, cocoa, making pasta and potions..." Things you would like us to now about your child: "Should we tell them?" Marc's father asked me. "They might as well know."

He wrote, "Claims to be Mighty Mouse and have a house in California..."

We're not quite sure when Mighty Mouse stepped out of the TV because it was "too warm in there" and moved his rescue operation into our house. Before he joined us, there had been a succession of identities that Marc had tried on. The signatures of Bert, Noah, Pooh, Tigger, Snoopy, and Super Grover showed up on project papers we collected from Marc's cubbyhole at preschool. And we were charmed, not surprised, when the director of the child development center wrote a thank you addressed, "Dear Paddington Bear, Ernie, Spiderman, Marc, et al."

Then Marc began to regularly introduce himself as "Mighty Mouse." He had only seen a few Mighty Mouse cartoons before programming changes banished the tiny hero, but something had clicked between Marc and the courageous all-powerful "mouse with hands." Perhaps it was the daring rescue of a damsel from an oncoming train--a danger and an awesome power Marc, an avid railroad fan, knew well.

Whatever the reason, Mighty Mouse stayed.

We were amazed with his elaborate details: ancestors going back several generations; numerous cousins, both "ordinary" and famous mice (Jerry, Speedy, Dumbo's friend Timothy, Mickey, the Christmas mice--an impressive list); geographical and architectural description of his former home in the "cooler mountainous part of California"; and, of course, brave deeds.

He still looked like our little boy and most of the time acted like him, but his insistence that he really was a mouse began to make us uneasy.

It's not as though we hadn't encouraged his fantasy life from the beginning. Hadn't we started reading to him his first week and reread his favorites hundreds of times? And hadn't we aided his make-believe, helping him put together costumes and castles? And don't we believe that a child whose feet are replanted in reality whenever he starts to soar will never reach for the moon or stars?

So why were we reading everything we could find and talking to every professional and parent we knew about childhood imagination?

Well, for one thing, when he started being "indestructible," we worried about his safety. My brother Bill was four when he put on a blue jacket with a red cape, climbed up on a shed roof, and shouted "Up! Up! And away!" A broken leg ended the would-be Superman's flying career.

And underlying our concern was the unspoken fear that this could be symptomatic of a potential personality disturbance. Parenting books usually discuss imaginary friends, but Marc's variation seemed different; could that mean trouble?

The books told us that imagination is a good thing--to a point. But you can't measure how much is too much with a thermometer. And as a neighbor said about her daughter's several personas, "It's hard to tell what's normal, healthy pretending, and what's the beginning of The Three Faces of Eve."

We did occasionally make attempts to discourage Mighty Mouse, but they seemed to provoke the same frustration in Marc that Big Bird feels when adults on Sesame Street don't believe in Snuffy. So we sought casual but professional counsel. Our pediatrician, Marc's teacher, and others assured us that children's imaginary lives are as diversified as children are and that Marc is a well-adjusted child who is dealing with and enjoying the real world.

With that, we relaxed. Once we quit worrying about it, we recognized that Mighty Mouse has helped Marc to express and cope with some of the most difficult experiences of his young life. When his younger brother was hospitalized for an emergency operation, Mighty Mouse was able to talk about feelings of guilt, fear, death--and then he turned around twice, and Marc was back in my arms with an immense burden lifted.

And, most important, he tells me, "Here you have a mouse and a boy, living happily ever after!"

Still, as my husband added to the summer form, "We tell him that, all things considered, we like Marc best."

This essay was published as a "Day by Day" column in the Sesame Street Parents' Newsletter in 1982. The Marshalls were living in Denver, Colorado, at the time.

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