Monday, November 15, 2010

The Magic Of Children's Imagination

"But really, where do fairies sleep, Mommy?"
My children are a few months shy of four. Our daughter is knee-deep in fairy/princess mode. Our son fills his days alternately being a policeman chasing "bad guys" or a knight hunting wayward dragons through the house. They're also at that stage where they have never-ending questions. "How did all the dinosaurs die"? "What do fairies eat"? "What color shoes does Santa Claus wear"? 

Sometimes I know the answers to these questions (although I give my husband credit for remembering a meteor hitting the Earth as the accepted reason for dinosaur extinction) and sometimes I throw it back at them: "That's a great question! What do you think the reason is?" -- especially when it's a question like "Why are clouds in the sky"? It's to keep the sun warm, in case you were wondering.

"If you're really Santa Claus, you can get it for me.
And if you can't, you're only a nice man
with a white beard like mother says." 
But what do you do when your children ask questions about Santa or mermaids? Do you make up an answer to the very logical question, "how do mermaids breathe under water"? Or do you say something along the lines of mermaids are just pretend so when you're pretending you can do anything! How do I answer when my son asks, "Why is Elmo a puppet?" and my daughter retorts, "He's NOT a puppet! He's a boy!" Do I tell my son Elmo actually isn't a puppet, even though he is correct, in order to keep up the illusion? Or do I correct her and point out that her brother is actually right? 

I make it a point to be truthful with our children about things, but I also want to preserve a sense of fantasy and magic in their lives. What would childhood be without that? They'll end up like the mini-adult Natalie Wood in "Miracle on 34th Street"whose mother doesn't want to fill her daughter's head with make believe and fantasies lest she grow up to be disappointed when life doesn't live up to those dreams. 

I was talking to my dad about this Elmo conversation and his take on it was interesting; his inclination was to say that both children are right. Elmo is a puppet when no one is playing him, but he turns into a boy when the puppeteer plays him. It's like magic. You forget he's a puppet and believe he's a boy. His suggestion was that both views are right, so one can find an honest way to frame an answer that doesn't destroy the wonder. 
magical fairy doors

There is a large part of me that feels that the wonder and beauty of childhood lies in this world of make-believe and in that innocent ability to see magic everywhere. Just Google "fairy doors" and you'll find hundreds of sites devoted to handcrafted little doors which, when placed in your garden or about your home, open a "portal for pixies, elves and fairies" to visit. Who could deny the appeal of this invitation? One of our children's favorite movies is the Miyazaki classic, "My Neighbor Totoro", in which two girls have fantastic adventures with magical creatures who live in a giant camphor tree behind their house. One of the many things I love about this movie is that none of the grownups shut down the children's stories even though they cannot see these creatures themselves.
Totoro, Mei and Satsuki, asleep under the camphor tree

It's not really telling magical tales I have guilt over though; it's when the kids ask me a direct question, like whether dragons are real, and I extend their belief in a fairytale. Is it lying? Or is it just that 4 years old is too young to look at life through the lens of an adult's sometimes dull and conventional eye? Or maybe it's that there's just a little bit of me that wants to believe that children have the ability to see things grownups can't, just because they haven't yet lost the belief in them. 

Experts in child development now agree that make-believe is an essential part of children's development that should be protected and allowed. But how much and for long is it OK to indulge them? From my father's autobiographical first book, "Twelve Years: An American Boyhood In East Germany":
"That frightened look on Alma's [his mother] face reappeared when I told her that I had befriended a little bird, and that the bird liked to sit on the rim of my breast pocket.  I think the idea came from The Secret Garden.  [ . . . ] She pretended to believe me, and I did likewise, but somehow her response lacked a certain ingredient of surprise or curiosity which my bird required if it was ever to attain a satisfactory degree of verisimilitude.  Alma just nodded and smiled in an indulgent sort of way, or said "Really?" with that flickering of hidden worry and doubt in her eyes."
My father was 8 years old at the time of the imaginary bird friend; perhaps that's why my grandmother was so insecure about indulging this fantasy. Reading this quote brought tears to my eyes because, for me, it was a missed opportunity for connection and a missed chance to understand this boy on a deeper level. Children use play and imagination to process so much that goes on in their lives; what do we risk losing when we shut it down too soon? 

These days there is so much debate about play in the early years at school and whether too much of it leads to children not being prepared for the rigors of what is to come. Many parents would like their children to start Kindergarten knowing how to read and write; by first grade if these skills aren't mastered, parents begin to worry. Yet, in a country like Finland where children don't start formal education until 7 years old, their high school students are routinely at the top, worldwide, when tested for academic achievement. So what are they doing those first 7 years? From the blog Not Just Cute:
"In these preschools and kindergartens, you won’t find the country’s next crop of top students drilling through flashcards or poring over worksheets.  More likely, you’ll see them singing, playing, and painting.  In Finland, the focus for early education is on learning how to learn.  Children are encouraged to experience, explore, and play.  The Fins value the development of curiosity and social competency in the early years.  They know that the “academics” will come more easily later if the foundation is there."
When I read about schools cutting funding for art, music, language and even PE, in order to focus primarily on "academics", it makes me worry about our children's future. In our pursuit of academic excellence and the hope that our children will lead better and more wonderful lives only if they excel at an early age, we may be dooming them to a dull, grey existence without wonder, magic and the beauty of imagination. 

Even if we, as grownups, hold up science as the ultimate in knowledge and learning, wasn't it Einstein, who said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”  
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5 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

Sadie33 said...

I came across your blog on Babble when I was looking at all the mom blogs. Great blog! Interesting posts and information for moms of twins or single kids.

The Twin Coach said...

Thank you so much for the comment & for finding me via! I love when my posts are helpful to parents of singletons too! I look forward to hearing your comments.

Keilah said...

Great read! I myself don't have twins, but love your insight on parenting in general. Some of your thoughts on lying to you children are exactly what I was contemplating when writing today's post (Oh, and thanks for the compliments on my own blog!)

The Twin Coach said...

Hi Keilah, having parents who don't have twins find & love my blog has been an amazing surprise bonus for me. So glad you are relating to what I write.

Jess said...

Albert Einstein also said “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” spot on with your post! thanks

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