Shirley Jackson's story “Charles” centers around the theme of a child's misbehavior as he searches for identity and attention and his parents' poor response to his actions and attitude.
Laurie is just starting kindergarten, and he is a very ill-behaved little boy. He talks back to his parents, acts out, and is generally rude. He also begins talking about another boy at school who constantly misbehaves, even hitting the teacher, disrupting the class, and terrorizing other students. Laurie seems quite enthusiastic about Charles, even admiring his behavior and bragging about it. Laurie is obviously seeking attention through his bad behavior. He wants to feel like he is in control, and he learns that most often he is.
Laurie's parents fail to correct Laurie's bad behavior or talk to him about Charles's actions. They make a few minor attempts to curb their son, but he ignores them completely, and they never follow through. Further, they make Charles's antics into something of a family joke and never bother to explain to their son why this kind of behavior is not acceptable. They just let Laurie go along as he does without actually parenting him in any noticeable way.
Laurie's mother is in for a major surprise, however, when she talks to Laurie's teacher and learns that there is no little boy named Charles in the kindergarten class. Laurie is the one who has been doing everything he tells his parents about Charles. He has created a new identity for himself, so he can hide behind Charles rather than learn how to take responsibility for his own actions.