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Imagination vs. Reality

When my twins, Drew and Claire, were 2, they got into the habit of ending their phone calls to me with loud kissing noises and the question "Did you get my kiss?"

"Yes," I'd say, making smacking sounds in return. "Did you get mine?"

At age 7 they're still telephoning kisses to me, and I'm starting to wonder: Do they actually think their kisses travel through the phone and plant themselves on my cheek? What do they truly believe? What do any kids think is real? And what should parents tell them?

One of the awesome things about being a parent is the constant mingling of real and pretend, the concrete and the imagined. It can be a blast to swoop a spoonful of mush through the air like an airplane or howl together at the moon like a wolf family. But when a child says she won't go downstairs because of the monster, does she really think there's a creature in the living room, and should we dismiss it as nonsense?

Figuring out the difference between real and pretend is one of the major tasks of childhood. While some understanding will evolve naturally as her brain grows, your child will need your help in four key areas:



Jackie Gundaker of Indianapolis, 3, was quick with a lie when she hit her friend: "It was an accident." When her 5-year-old sister, Carly, spilled her milk, she said, "I didn't do it." Mom Lisa wasn't fooled by either of them, of course, but in deciding how to respond to your child's lies, it's helpful to understand her relationship with the truth.

A lot of this depends on age. Because the frontal lobes of their brains are just developing, toddlers don't have the brain circuitry they need to delay gratification. Two- and 3-year-olds are focused on getting what they want, and don't think it's wrong to lie about having washed their hands as long as it gets them to the pretzels faster. "It's not a conscious effort on a three-year-old's part to mislead," says Stanford University developmental psychologist John Flavell, Ph.D.

Yet even though they lie a lot, toddlers are wildly unconvincing. This is because they haven't yet developed an understanding that people see the world from different perspectives. As far as your 2-year-old is concerned, if she says she didn't color the wall, it doesn't occur to her that you might look at the marker on the floor and the smudge of color on her hand and draw your own conclusion. And though she's trying to deceive, she doesn't really understand that it's wrong to do so.

By age 5, it's a different story. The child who says she didn't spill her milk is trying to deceive and knows it's wrong. Make it clear you expect her to tell the truth. (On the positive side, the ability to deceive improves the social graces of a 4- or 5-year-old. She's able to thank Grandma for a homemade sweater even if she thinks it looks weird -- this is called empathy.)

More deception busters:

Display the evidence. Hold up the broken toy or the muddy shoe and explain that you know what happened. But don't make too big a deal about lies told by a very young child. With older kids, it's safe to expect two or three denials before they finally admit to a lie.

Preempt the lie. Instead of giving your kids the temptation to lie by asking if they've brushed their teeth, say, "You didn't brush your teeth. Go brush." And "You drew on the wall" is less of a potential minefield for a 3-year-old than asking her about it.

Discourage exaggeration. A kindergartner in my son's class swore he'd cut off a boy's head in karate. My son told a friend he'd been playing wall ball since he was 3. Not true. Tell your child that her achievements don't need exaggeration and that friendships can't be based on lies -- friends are special people with whom we're extra honest.

Scary thoughts

Once I surprised 2-year-old Drew and Claire with a four-foot-high giraffe piñata. In what I thought was a clever move, I crept around the side of the house and held up the giraffe so it seemed to be walking by the window. The kids shrieked, but not with delight.

What seems blatantly unreal to us -- a four-foot-high giraffe piñata -- is often startling, confusing, and frightening to young children. Even if they don't think the giraffe is real, that fact offers no consolation. Knowledge is swamped by a flood of emotion and becomes irrelevant. After all, we've asked them to believe in Santa Claus (and they do, bless their little hearts), so how surprising is it that they could believe in ferocious herbivores?

Particularly in the dark of night, thinking about a monster can be just as unsettling as seeing something frightening. "Some children are straightforward and rational," says Paul Harris, Ph.D., author of The Work of the Imagination. "Others allow their fantasies to run away with them."

Harris remembers when his 7-year-old son had trouble going to sleep because he was conjuring up images of spiders. "I told him, 'I'm certain there are no tarantulas in this house,'" says Harris. His son wasn't reassured, so Harris tried another tack.

"I asked him, 'Is it because when you think about tarantulas they're scary?' and he said, 'Yes, that's it.'" Talking about the scary image may help it to dissipate. Similarly, it's often hard for young kids to believe that a friend in a costume is still a friend. Dressed in a skeleton outfit, with gloves and a head mask, 6-year-old Ethan Sieben of Chicago didn't look like Ethan anymore. Scared, his 2-year-old sister, Kyra, ran to mom Amy for comfort.

Kyra needs to grapple with separating what's real from what she sees, explains Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flashcards. Is it the mask that defines this person, or is it the face and voice and personality that are underneath the mask?

This sophisticated line of thinking is usually out of the realm of toddlers, Hirsh-Pasek says. Once kids have the memory and experience to understand that things aren't always as they appear, usually by age 5, costume transformations aren't as frightening. In the meantime, keep the masks off as much as possible and let your child watch as big brother puts the mask on and takes it off.

Other ways to fight fright:

Problem-solve. Explaining that monsters don't exist probably won't make much of a difference. Instead, tell your child you get how he feels, and help him come up with ways to defeat the monster. Ask him what might work. A "No Monsters" sign? A nightlight?

Read something scary together. Encountering bad guys in a book can allow a child to explore his fear. Try Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. "Convey that you're not anxious, and that you're quite confident the book is not going to scare them," says Frances Stott, Ph.D., professor of child development at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school.

Make it go away. If your child begs to leave a scary movie, do. Staying longer won't help him "get over" his fear. "A child learns to be brave by feeling safe," says Stott. Same with a book that scares him -- hide it or give it away.

The realm of pretend

In his second year, your child develops the brain circuitry that allows him to hold a block and imagine it's a car. Drinking from an imaginary cup of tea, hammering pretend nails, and playing a tiger roaming the wilds of the living room are ways for him to learn about reality. He's figuring out the emotions and behaviors of tea-drinking mommies, nail-banging carpenters, and roaring tigers.

Absorption into these fascinating new worlds can be intense.

For babies and young toddlers, the ability to distinguish between what's real and what's pretend isn't reliable. "I've got a ten-month-old who loves to talk on the play phone," says Mary Manix, who works in the infant room of a childcare provider in Spokane, Washington. "I think he thinks he's doing the same thing we're doing." At that age, it's likely he doesn't know what a real phone is, so imitation is reality to him.

He won't stay confused for long. Older toddlers know what's real when they're playing but often ignore it. Fiction is simply more fun. "It's like they want to get out of their own reality," says Katie Koralia, a preschool teacher in Duluth, Minnesota, who has a 3-year-old student who often prefers to be addressed as Batboy. "I don't think he really thinks he's Batboy," she says.

"Two-and-a-half-year-olds understand the distinction between real and pretend," says Susan Engel, Ph.D., author of Real Kids. "But when they're in play mode, they can lose sight of that distinction, or it becomes unimportant."

With language improvement comes more sophisticated role-playing and more interest in crossing and recrossing the boundary of reality. In Charlottesville, Virginia, Cindy Cartwright's then 3-year-old daughter Meridith talked at length about her imaginary friend Mana. But Meridith was in charge of the fantasy. "After we moved, Meridith said that Mana had moved, too. But when I asked, 'Is Mana going to come over?' " says Cartwright, "Meridith said, 'Oh, she's just pretend.' "

To make peace with make-believe:

Respect their world. "He won't answer to Eric," says Koralia of her student. "So I say, 'Batboy, time to clean up.'"

Work with him. If it's pj's time but your child is lost in playland, make bedtime part of the game.

Don't worry. Pretend play lets kids figure out the real world of emotions, relationships, and ideas.

The reality of TV

As if life itself isn't confusing enough for kids, along comes television, with images of flying purple dragons and, occasionally, even pictures of themselves. Learning to decode how TV operates can be complicated.

Babies and toddlers don't suspect that wires and circuit boards lurk behind the screen. Show a 9-month-old a TV-screen image of a ball, and he'll try to reach and get it, says Daniel Anderson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a consultant on the television show Blue's Clues.

Similarly, a lot of 3-year-olds will say that a bowl of popcorn on the television screen would spill if the TV tipped over.

But more so than with other challenges to reality, children should be educated about the fictional nature of much of what's on TV. Because they'll see so many ads and images, they need to figure out sooner rather than later how the whole thing works so they can view critically. "It's not until around age twelve that kids start forming an adult understanding of media," Anderson says.

For the littlest viewers:

Roll the camera. Let your child press the "record" button on the video camera and film family members. Have him watch it, and explain what he's seeing.

Introduce the idea of acting. Have the kids perform a play while you record it. When you all watch the videotape or DVD, explain that your child is an actor in the play, just the way Maria is played by an actor on Sesame Street.

Let them know when TV ads begin. Say, "Oh, it's a commercial," and explain that ads try to get you to buy certain things.

So I finally asked Drew and Claire what they think happens when they telephone a kiss to me. Does it really travel through the phone line and land on me? Drew, my rational guy, said, "No." But Claire, she looked away and declined to talk about it. I know that she knows kisses aren't magical little beings, and don't fly, but clearly she'd rather not concede as much just yet.

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams also writes for the Chicago Tribune.