Do my children get carried away in their flight from reality? | Sophie brickman

Never confuse fantasy with “reality”.

It’s a phrase that has floated, jokingly, in my family since my father’s coworker told him the bungle years ago. We New Yorkers of course never confuse fantasy with reality. But in our house, we happily confuse the two all the time.

For months last year, as we were browsing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, my kindergarten child was walking around the apartment in a full pioneer girl outfit, with a beanie, wondering how better to break the oxen or down to the ground. She’s committed, deeply, to the role, cut from the same fabric as Jeremy Strong and other method players, insisting that her pajamas were made of calico and roasted in the dress all summer long, even as she claimed that a blizzard was swirling outside and that ‘she could see his breath in the air.

“Do you want ice cream? This, my preschooler asks from various perches as his imaginary ice cream stand wanders the living room, the sadistic vendor offering flavors that often suddenly run out. On rare occasions, she transforms into a medic, offering injections with her spoons, although she is highly specialized, treating only one disease: jumping so high on the trampoline that you injure your arm. It’s a sloppy version of what happened to her older sister, who broke her elbow last year after falling from monkey bars, but remains etched in her mind as something very serious that can be repaired with a rapid injection. And over the past few weeks, his pretend play has gotten even more intense, with nightly requests for bedtime stories related to trampoline crashes.

“At two and a half, three, the blur between reality and fantasy is blurry,” Kathy Hirsh-Pasek told me when I reached her by phone. “And I think fantasy is very powerful for kids – it’s a safe place.”

Hirsh-Pasek is Professor of Psychology at Temple University, where she studies child development, and Principal Investigator at the Brookings Institution. I called her in hopes that she could put my kids’ amplified pretend play against the backdrop of our chaotic year. Was it a cry for help, an indication that our new normal, with its constantly moving lines in the sand – you can see Nana and Papa inside, but with masks on, or maybe only inside? ‘outside, but at a distance; here’s a Zoom kit kicked out of school before winter break, which we may have to use, but probably not – was it wreaking havoc?

When the children of Hirsh-Pasek were in this liminal reality-fantasy age, she told me, there were real monsters in their closet.

“So we had a whole ceremony with dream catchers, we turned the mattress, we caught the monsters and we threw them in the toilet,” she recalls. “We let kids know that they have the power to control something, even if they don’t. It’s a really powerful message.

And this can be especially important now, as children, even immune to the specifics of this continuing uncertainty, internalize more than we know.

“They remember every little thing we do, they model it, they understand it, they look at us like they’re sociologists,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “And we were a wreck.”

I might not wear a calico dress and hand out snapshots for hyper specific trampoline accidents, but haven’t we all lived, a bit, in a fantasy land in the past year and a half? Every time I cook and then cancel dinner plans; whenever I convince myself that on such and such a date, I won’t need to put a tiny surgical mask on my little urban doctor and send her to kindergarten; every night I think I’ll give up that handful, or three, of leftover Halloween candy to relax – it’s fancy. But, for a few moments, I live in this safe space. Children do this much longer, finding real comfort in their imaginations.

The kindergarten kid and I just finished reading The BFG, which I found both a particularly enjoyable way to suspend reality, but also a wonderful allegory of parenthood during the pandemic. For the four people who have yet to read this Roald Dahl classic (spoilers ahead), it’s about a tall, friendly giant and orphan, Sophie, who sees him on a pitch black night from the window. of the orphanage, while he blows something in a child’s room opposite. He sees her staring, picks her up and takes her to the Land of Giants, where she learns that while the BFG catches dreams and blows them into children’s rooms at night, there are other evil giants roaming the land. world, ripping people from their beds and eating them. The plot turns when Sophie and the BFG decide to do something. In the end, the giant villains are captured, and like most of Dahl’s fictions, the Child triumphs.

“It offers a way to say yes, there are monsters out there, but guess what, we have the power to deal with them,” Hirsh-Pasek told me. “Fantasy can make scary things less scary, help kids cope a little better, and show them that with us they have the power to change everything. She stopped. “Maybe that’s not 1000% honest. I understand. But I am down to earth with the fantasy. (She later sent me a study concluding that young children often learn real-world information better if it is featured in a fantasy story that violates real-world paradigms.)

The other night, hoping to extend my nighttime getaways with Dahl, I looked up the name on the BFG sign-up page: Olivia. A quick Google search pushed the moment onto its axis, refocusing much like a zoom of a Hitchcockian dolly. Olivia was the daughter of Dahl, who died suddenly in 1962, at the age of seven, of encephalitis caused by measles.

“As the disease was on its usual course, I remember reading to him often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed,” he wrote in a widely circulated open letter urging parents to vaccinate their children. children, published during a measles epidemic in 1986. “Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to shape small animals with medicine. colorful pipes, and when it was her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind weren’t working together… Within an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

He dedicated James and the Giant Peach to Olivia while she was still alive. Twenty years after his death, he published The BFG with his name in mind. As Dahl knew so well, in fantasy you can do anything: make rivers of chocolate, fly inside giant peaches, even bring girls back to life.

The vanity of the book, which you learn in the last few pages, is that the BFG actually wrote the thing and just published it under another name. The night we finished, my kindergarten child stared at the blanket for a while.

“I don’t think that’s true,” she said. My heart sank as I imagined him crossing that invisible border, from fanatic to hardened realist, a transition I feared would accelerate in recent years. Then, as she closed her eyes and began to fall asleep, she muttered: Actually is that Sophie told the story to Roald Dahl, and he wrote it.

And of course, in a way, she’s right.


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