Initially there were advantages to my 4-year-old son, Arlo, wearing the same superhero costume every day. It was simple getting him dressed. Bedtime was certainly snappy, and he was easy to spot in a crowd. But even Bruce Wayne is Batman for only a few hours a day. Arlo, however, was beholden to a more rigid code—that set forth by Sportacus, the exerciseand nutrition-espousing hero of a children's show called LazyTown. Sportacus doesn't lounge around in silk pajamas, drinking brandy and waiting for a signal in the night sky. There is no off-duty version, no "real" man behind the character. Sportacus does not wear pajamas. He never removes his blue-andwhite getup, cap, and goggles. Sportacus is always Sportacus.
This made it difficult for us to convince Arlo that "sometimes it's fun to wear regular clothes." At bedtime, he would take off his cap and snuggle with it as other children his age might with a stuffed animal or a blanket. More than once, he awoke with goggle marks on his back. By the third day of constant wear, we worried that the costume's chintzy polyester—the extra-cheap kind that's normally associated with floppy-collared 1970s button-downs bearing images of howling wolves and sunsets—might irritate his skin, and that the fabric's lack of breathability may make him overheat. We worried that other parents might judge us for letting Arlo "run the show." And, of course, we worried that he might start to stink.
Our kid's idolatry is something every parent recognizes and appreciates as a phase. As long as he doesn't tip over our cart, we all enjoy seeing a miniature Iron Man running through the grocery aisles. And that's how it went for the first couple of weeks, everyone smiling at him. Some knew he was Sportacus, and others asked, "Now who are you?", their voices sweet and curious. Arlo would simply strike a Sportacus pose: standing firm, hands on hips, confident grin, left eyebrow raised. "He's Sportacus, from a show called LazyTown," we answered for him. But phases are supposed to end, and though we all knew that Arlo wouldn't be wearing a Sportacus costume to his high-school graduation, the question of when exactly he would outgrow it lingered. At the end of a week, the costume was filthy.
A cherry Popsicle on a hot day got the ball rolling. After a snack of veggie straws and an unfortunate stumble into some fresh mulch, he wiped his hands, creating sticky red smears. Our little Sportacus appeared to be down on his luck, like a laid-off Santa Claus.
Somehow, we convinced him to let us wash the costume, and he sat next to the washing machine, in his underwear (yes, he changed his underwear every day). His commitment was so unwavering, my wife decided to buy a second, slightly larger, identical costume. Stains don't come out of polyester, but at least we could keep him smelling fresh. Now in possession of two costumes, Arlo would convince his older brother or other neighborhood kids to squeeze into the size 4T one.
So enthusiastic and excited was Arlo to share his zeal for all things Sportacus, it was difficult to discourage him. If anything, the metamorphosis became more aggressive as the weeks passed. While watching an episode of LazyTown or looking at a picture of Sportacus online, Arlo would notice some tiny detail of his costume that differed from the one Sportacus wore, and he'd insist that we make the appropriate alteration. So we drew stripes on both forearms, added an orange ring to the #10 on his back, and fashioned a "jetpack" from cardboard, which we tied around his torso with kite string. Then, after some deliberation, we agreed to draw a thin, Salvador Dali-esque mustache above his upper lip. Maintaining Arlo's look was our new part-time job.
As the weeks became a month, some of the friendly smiles in the neighborhood started to look forced. Perhaps concern was brewing. When Arlo requested that everyone call him Sportacus, my wife and I started to feel a little uneasy too. "Is this normal?" we wondered. "What is normal, exactly?" Eventually, we decided that when it comes to clothes and personality, "normal" is boring.
By August, Arlo had been dressed as Sportacus for two months. The other kids on the block called him Sportacus, as did their parents. Everyone was on board. Then one day Arlo watched Toy Story for the first time and his obsession transferred to Buzz Lightyear. He wanted a costume, and having learned how this goes we went ahead and bought two. "You know," we told him, "when school starts, you'll have to wear regular clothes." "Okay," he said, unfazed. And when the first day of school came, there was no fuss, no arguing or crying. Phases do come to an end, but that speaks nothing of their duration. And it also doesn't mean you won't miss them when they're over