Into the Imagination:
How Kids Perceive Reality
We live in a world of make-believe. Not only that, we thrive in it. We tell our children about the existence of a jolly old elf who brings them presents, but only if they’re good. We perpetuate the myth of the Easter Bunny who lays chocolate eggs; of the bankrolling Tooth Fairy.
And we hurl ourselves into the midst of goblins on Halloween, buying into ghost stories, telling them to our children, and encouraging them to dress up as vampires, witches, ghosts, and all those evildoers our imaginations can create.
And with all of these imaginative stories, we hope our children buy into them as much as we did, and maybe still do. Why? Because it’s fun. And, it actually plays into different stages in children’s development.
Our brains have an amazing capacity that allows us to believe what we want to believe. Take the movies, for example.
Even though we know it’s just a movie, we still get anxious, sad, and scared (it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie). This kind of cerebral emotion didn’t just develop overnight. It took years of careful cultivation of our imaginations and it started when we were very, very young.
Meet My Imaginary Friend
Some of the earliest signs of a healthy imagination in a child manifest in the creation of imaginary friends or personified objects, like stuffed animals that “talk” to the child. These “friends” usually appear at around age 2 1/2–3 years and can last until grade school or beyond. Nearly two-thirds of all preschoolers confess to having imaginary friends.
Also, they are more common among firstborn and only children, according to research conducted by Dr. Jerome Singer, a psychologist at Yale University. In addition, he found that children who have imaginary friends got along better with classmates, appeared happier, and had a richer vocabulary than children who did not.
Despite these findings, many parents express concern when they see their child bringing the imaginary friend out of the playroom. They are worried their child is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality because he or she chooses to act within the confines of a made-up world. However, Marjorie Taylor, a professor and head of the Psychology Department at the University of Oregon, says her research indicates the opposite is true.
“They’re in control of the fantasy,” she says. “If I’m creating a companion, I’m in control of that companion. I’m the one who decides to do it. I’m the one who figured out what the companion is going to be like, and I’m the one who’s the author of what happens between me and my companion.”
Taylor says this kind of control is important on several levels. Not only do children get to decide what the imaginary friend says and does, they get to experiment with different scenarios – how does the imaginary friend react after getting a shot at the doctor’s office, what will mommy say if the friend jumps on the couch? Singer calls this a child’s way of dealing with everyday stress.
Under these conditions, Taylor says children are quite able to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined. As part of her research, Taylor interviewed young, pre-school aged children about their imaginary friends. During the course of conversation, she says the children would interrupt themselves to clarify with Taylor that the friend in question is part of the child’s imagination.
“They’ll say, ‘you know it’s just pretend.’ Or, ‘She’s just a make-believe girl.’ And they’ll kind of smile. They’re almost worried that I’m getting confused.”
Where children might become confused has more to do with what they see and what they’ve learned up to that point in time.
Seeing is Believing
Dr. Jacqueline Woolley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has based a lot of her research on what is called appearance/ reality distinction. For example, she shows children a sponge painted to look like a rock. Children younger than 5 years old have difficulty understanding that what they see is not a rock, but rather, a sponge. “They can’t really think of one thing in two different ways,” she says, which is why some children are afraid of Halloween. “So it’s possible they can see mom dressed up as the ghost … and if you ask the child what does she look like, they’ll say a ghost. But then, if you ask the child what is she really and truly, they would still say a ghost.”
Sometimes, children are better able to distinguish between what is pretend and what is real if they see the transformation, says Taylor. “I tortured my own child this way.” Taylor recalled how scared her 2-year-old daughter became when she woke up from a nap and found everyone around her in costumes.
“We had to immediately take off some of our costumes and say ‘no, it’s me, mom.’ It didn’t occur to me at the time when she fell asleep that she would be afraid when she woke up. But why wouldn’t she be afraid? All of a sudden, nobody had explained this to her.”
Explaining fact from fiction is one area where adults seem to fall short. We take for granted that children will be able to make the distinction on their own, and oftentimes they do. But when they don’t, we worry about their psychological development.
“We tell them about animals that dress up and act like people – Winnie the Pooh, all these fantasy stories,” says Taylor. “And we’re not saying to them there really isn’t a Winnie the Pooh, and animals can’t talk and they don’t dress up like people when we’re not around.” In a way, it’s no wonder children use these cues to create a world they believe to be real.
Credible Sources and Reality Checks
This behavior of using cues to determine what is fact from fiction is something we’ve carried through our lives to adulthood, says Woolley. “For example, if we read something in the National Enquirer we have a different idea what’s real than if we read it, say, in National Geographic.”
Likewise, when children get information from what they believe to be credible sources, they are more likely to believe it is true. To test this theory, Woolley and her colleagues created a story about cernets, a made-up thing. “For half the kids, we said doctors collect cernets. Doctors use cernets in the hospital.
The other half we said, ‘Now, I’m going to tell you about cernets. Ghosts collect cernets. They fly around with them at night.’ Then we looked to see if kids thought cernets were real or not.” Not surprisingly, the children who were told that doctors used cernets were more likely to believe they were real than those who correlated them to ghosts.
In another study, Woolley looked at motivation as a form of reality check. She went to a preschool and told children about the Candy Witch who really liked candy and was willing to give children toys in exchange for Halloween treats. However, she would only go to their houses if children had their parents call her. The child would then set out candy for the witch, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning to find a toy in its place.
What Woolley found is that children who preferred a toy to candy had a stronger belief in the Candy Witch than those with a big sweet tooth. She also found that children whose parents participated in the ruse were even more likely to believe the Candy Witch was real. After all, somebody had to take away the candy and deliver a toy.
Having a credible source plus active reinforcement of a story helps shape children’s ideas of what is true and what is not. Consider Santa Claus. Children are told over and over about this jolly elf who shimmies down chimneys with a sack full of toys, but only if the child is good. Not only do parents tell this to their children, society reinforces it on television, in stores, and in school. And on December 25th, when a child wakes up to a gift-wrapped room, the child becomes a believer.
Ironically, the older a child becomes – 4 and 5 years old, as opposed to 2 and 3 – the more likely he or she is to believe in the parents’ fantasies. “The traditional view is that younger kids are more incredulous and believe everything and live in a fantasy world and, as the kids get older, they get more critical and skeptical,” says Woolley.
But as exemplified by the Candy Witch scenario, Woolley found, as with Santa Claus, the opposite was true. “The older kids had stronger beliefs than the younger kids.” Part of that may be attributed to the older children realizing how the fantasy works (be good, get toys, give the witch candy, get toys), and, therefore, wanting to believe in the fantasy even more. It’s all part of normal cognitive development.
Children begin moving from concrete fantasy to abstract fantasy; they begin to anticipate the outcome of a story, either one that’s told to them or one they tell themselves. Such is the case with monsters under the bed as well as those that fly around on Halloween night.
Choosing a Fantasy
Here is where two forms of thought diverge. One states that children begin substituting their parents’ rationale with their own, believing the fantasy is real – monsters do live under the bed, they just hide when a grown-up comes into the room. In this case, parents can help the child by providing him with tools, real or imagined, to handle the problem himself. Perhaps it’s a special Halloween flashlight the child uses to reveal the person beneath the costume. Or, a special phrase the child can use to send the monsters outside.
The second thought is that children, by the age of 4, are quite capable of distinguishing between fact and fantasy but are just having difficulty reminding themselves of what is real. This is called “discounting ability” and something we use almost every day as adults. We turn it on: “It’s only make-up, that person’s arm isn’t really severed at the elbow.” And we turn it off: “I cannot be in two places at once and do five things at a time.”
In the case of children, Taylor says they’re not good at keeping the awareness at the forefront of their consciousness, and need to be reminded of what they know is true. “When you see a 4-year-old being scared of the mom in the ghost costume, you shouldn’t conclude they can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, because we wouldn’t conclude the adult can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, even though they’re freaked out at a scary movie.
What children may have trouble with, says Taylor, is reminding themselves of their knowledge. So they should know that even though it looks like a ghost, it really is mom.
They should know it, and they may know it, but they may not want to know it, because sometimes, it’s fun to be afraid at Halloween. It’s fun to believe at Christmas. If that’s the case, psychologists say let your child—or your child’s imaginary friend – set the parameters of scariness or imagination, then indulge in their fantasies with them. Who says you can’t be a kid again?