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Pretend Play Is Great. Slaying Crocodiles in My Kid’s Room All Night Is Not.

I've tried hard to cultivate imaginative play with my daughter. Now I'm paying the price.

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I value pretend play and imagination. It’s good and healthy and by all means should be cultivated by parents. As a kid, I would spend hours in fantasy worlds, where I could move in and out of roles that I would never play in reality. I could be an explorer, captain, World Series hero, zookeeper, wizard. A good part of who I am and who I wanted to be were formed and tested in my imagination.

And having a child with an active imagination has been a joy. My daughter’s finally at an age where we can play together, and she invites me to pretend with her. We cook delightfully weird meals, we climb mountains, and we heal each other’s ailments. It’s great fun. But I have recently discovered that I have created a monster — not in her, but somewhere in her head.

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

I am going on my fourth night in a row of being woken up by her screams and cries between the hours of midnight and 4:30 a.m., and it’s all because of the illusory visions concocted somewhere inside her tiny, toddler brain.  

Maybe it’s my fault.

It started with the crocodiles. We had pretended that crocodiles were around the couch, but my wife and I made sure our daughter knew: they were friendly crocodiles. She giggled and played along and showed no signs of distress. But at 2 a.m., we heard her scream and found her sitting up in her bed.

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“Sweetie, what’s wrong?”

“Der’s a cockodile over der.”

She pointed by where I was standing, so I appealed to rationality (which, clearly, you should do with a 2-year-old).

“There’s nothing there, sweetie.”

She, of course, insisted there was indeed a crocodile there. And after five minutes of “No, there isn’t. Yes, there is,” I gave in. Putting on my best Steve Irwin impression, I bent over and “picked up” the crocodile and heaved it out of her room. My daughter peered at the closed door and, satisfied that the reptilian intruder had been expelled, lay back down.

I had barely turned to leave when she jolted back up and pointed at her feet.

“Ah! Der’s another one right der!”

So it went for another hour. I wrangled six crocodiles in that time, and I expect animal control to compensate me whenever they get a chance.

The next night was more of the same, though she didn’t exactly tell me what animal plagued her. On the third night, she had two different bouts of night terrors.

Last night, the bugs came out, and I suddenly wished I only had to deal with crocodiles.

The first scream came at one. Because my wife woke with her during my daughter’s infancy, I feel like it’s my job to wake up with her in her toddler years. I haven’t felt the sensation, but I think I’d rather have a teething baby pulling at my chest than trying to calm the feverish mind of a 2-year-old. At least breastfeeding usually ends within minutes.

For two hours, clad only in my boxers, I swatted insects fabricated somewhere in my daughter’s brain.  I assured my daughter that teddy bears eat bugs. I even pantomimed sealing the wall from where one string of imagined ants came streaming. By three, she had settled down and her deep breathing assured me she had fallen asleep.

My eyes had barely shut when I heard her screech again.

“Der in my bed!”

I tried for 20 minutes to stomp and spray those elusive figments of my daughter’s imagination until finally my daughter said, “Maybe I sleep in your room?” (because, of course, our bed is impervious to these imaginary creatures). In a move I’m sure to regret, I scooped her up and brought her to our bed. She fell asleep instantly. I spent the next two hours scrunched on my quarter of the bed with a tiny pair of feet dug into my spine.

I look forward to the can of worms this will bring.

So, maybe I brought this on myself. Maybe it’s nature. Maybe it’s nurture. Maybe this will only be a phase. Or maybe it is a problem never to be solved.

The answers lie somewhere in my daughter’s awesome brain with the fantastical creatures only she can see: the ones that lay dormant during the day, resting so they can break out and wreak havoc on our nights.

Jon Bennett is the father of a 2-year old and a teacher of teenagers. When he’s not serving as his daughter’s horse, ladder, or swing set, he’s writing or spending time with his wife, who is pretty important to him, as well. His debut novel, Reading Blue Devils, was released in February.