The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The power of imagination, and other parenting lessons from Calvin and Hobbes


My then-7-year-old son hurried into snow pants as he eyed the somersaulting flakes outside the window. “Are you going to build a snowman?” I asked him skeptically. Though only a couple of inches covered the ground, I knew from experience that scant accumulation was no obstacle to a determined child.

Otis nodded. “I’m going to cut a big hole in middle of his body. Like he was shot by a cannon. But first,” his voice revved with excitement, “I’m going to build him in the driveway so that when you back the car down, he’ll decapitate!”

My son, contrary to appearances, is not a sadistic murderer. He’s a reader. Late the previous night, I had caught him with a flashlight, scouring “Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons” under the covers.

One day recently we had found a stack of Calvin & Hobbes books in the “free” bin outside the local library. It had been years since I had read the books. I couldn’t recall specific story lines, but I remembered the strip as one that reliably made me laugh. I grabbed the entire stack, chuckling at the ingenuity of the titles as I slid them into a cloth bag. “The Revenge of the Baby-Sat.” “Something Under the Bed is Drooling.” “Weirdos from Another Planet.” “Scientific Progress Goes Boink!”

“What is baby-sat?” Otis asked.

“The ones being watched by the babysitter,” I replied. “You know, you and your sister.”

Did I see a glimmer in his eye?

Otis picked up “Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat.”

“What does ‘homicidal’ mean?”

I snatched the book out of his hands. I definitely remembered how inappropriate some of the content could be. The violence Calvin inflicts on snowmen could alone earn it an R rating. “These are for me,” I said evasively. Classic parenting mistake. The non-answer answer. The disguised “no.” I’d just done the verbal equivalent of cordoning off the evidence with yellow police tape. Do Not Enter! Absolutely Forbidden! What could be a more tantalizing invitation? I wasn’t too worried though. Surely the intimidatingly advanced vocabulary and amorphous philosophical ideas would be a natural barrier for such a young reader.

Of course, my son proved me wrong. Within the week, Otis had transferred the pile of books from my nightstand to the cavity under his bed. He walked around, ignoring everyone, splayed book in hand. He read at the breakfast table. He read in the bath. He read in the car on the way to school and then on the way home. “Do you remember what our son’s voice sounds like?” I joked to my husband.

Here's the best thing you can do for your kids, parents. (Pssst: It's easy.)

In the weeks that followed, I watched as my son’s brain caught fire. The books boosted his vocabulary and pushed him into the highest reading group at school, but, perhaps equally as importantly, they transformed his pretend play. Calvin inspired Otis to dream bigger. Galactically bigger. Otis improved on the many methods Calvin used to murder snowmen.

Otis spent days fiddling with string and boxes, constructing and rigging booby traps. He suspended one, a cardboard box filled with confetti, from the roof of the front porch, and laid in wait for someone to ring the bell. The contraption misfired, but I was so impressed with Otis’s industry, I left it hanging. (I would not have blamed the poor postal worker for skipping our house.) Then it was on to the next prank. Unbeknown to me, he had been sneaking around after bedtime, placing bubble wrap in strategic locations. On my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I became the first victim. Otis peeked out from his room. The look of satisfaction on his face at the sound of my scream sent chills up my spine.

Though Calvin often walks a precocious line in the strip, my child, like many children, clearly got the jokes. “Calvin agrees with you that kids should play outside,” he informed me during a particularly long stretch of days off from school, “But if it’s raining, then the best thing to do is drive your mom crazy.”

More and more often, I found myself saying my son’s name in a strangled tone, my patience thin, and I realized that, at some point, my empathy and allegiance had distinctly transferred from Calvin to Calvin’s Mom.

One day, I asked Otis what he thought of Hobbes. “What do you believe? Is he real or is he stuffed?” In a tone that connoted my knucklehead status, my son answered, “He’s a real tiger, but for some reason grown-ups think he’s a stuffed animal. I guess they just don’t know any better.”

His explanation silenced me. I realized I’d made a grave mistake. I was one of the (stupid) grown-ups. Never once had I considered that Hobbes might be real, because, well, he isn’t. But, belief does not come via verisimilitude. It is a house without struts, a bird without wings, where the former stands and the latter flies. Whether Hobbes was live or stuffed was beside the point. To believe in Hobbes is to believe in the power of imagination.

Perhaps a stuffed Hobbes is the symbolic representation of parental limitation and inadequacy, the depth and degree to which we lose sight of what it’s like to be a child. Hobbes is real because children’s feelings are real. Calvin wants to run away to the Yukon when he’s angry or frustrated. He throws apoplectic fits at mealtime because he doesn’t have the power of choice. He daydreams in class because he’s bored. He causes destruction and wreaks havoc because he’s curious. When we, as parents, focus only on the “bad” behavior, we miss the opportunity to understand the motivation and, ultimately, our children. When I asked my son why he liked Calvin so much, he said, simply, “He understands me.”

I’ve read my fair share of parenting books, but I’d put “Calvin & Hobbes” at the top of the list of required reading. It reminds me to change my point of view. To listen. To hear not just what my child says with his mouth but also what he conveys through his actions. Again and again, I’m reminded that I was deluded to think parents raise children. In truth, they are the ones raising us.

On Halloween this past year, Otis dressed as Calvin. He wore a striped shirt and a pair of shorts. He tucked a stuffed Hobbes under his arm. We ruffled his hair. He carried a pillowcase. On it, he scrawled, in black Sharpie, “Susie Derkins is a Nincompoop.” I accompanied him trick-or-treating dressed as Susie Derkins, in the clothes Otis picked for me. I wore a black top and skirt and carried a bouquet of dead flowers. My husband and I watched our son and daughter scamper up to houses, ring doorbells, then return to where we stood waiting on the sidewalk. We felt it keenly, the tether between children and parents, a piece of gum stretching longer and thinner; at some point, the distance untenable, it must snap: They find independence.

That night, at bedtime, while we snuggled, Otis turned to me, looking serious. “I think Hobbes might be stuffed.” My heart shivered with loss, as it had with previous transitions from one phase to another, in life’s irrevocable vector. But I said only, “Is he?”

Molly Pascal is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @MollyPascal.

Follow On Parenting for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and work. You can sign up here for our On Parenting newsletter.

More reading:

How I’m teaching my tween to take the high road, one step at a time

A new report shows that reading for fun declines between ages 8 and 9. How can we stem the tide?

Parents, I think I’ve found the fountain of youth. It’s in my pillow.