Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Little Children See Fantasy and Reality

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where it appeared on April 28, 2014. Image credit: FidlerJan at Morguefile: http://cdn.morguefile.com/imageData/public/files/f/FidlerJan/01/l/142254712953aq5.jpg.)

Right...on Chatabout I promised to share a story about little children's sense of reality. The question was how to get little children to tell the truth. People had replied to that question in the sense of how to get them not to tell stories they've made up as truth. The received psychological explanation for this behavior is that little children "don't separate fantasy from reality." I've never been sure that that's the correct explanation though.

When I was a little child, I knew the difference between what I made up all by myself, what I read in books, and what I saw in real life, as well as I do now. What I didn't know was whether other people would know the difference.

And a little child I baby-sat, as a teenager, said something that convinced me that what she didn't know was whether other people knew the difference. Older children in the family were talking about their day at school. Both mentioned their official school friends and enemies. 

The youngest child waited, semi-patiently, for about an hour of this and then said something like, "And then I went up in the woods and visited my friend Suzy Strawberryful, and we went for a ride on her horse Brownie Hayful, and we visited her cousin Tracy Cakeful and played parchesi..."

"Bosh," said one of the older children, semi-patiently. "We know you stayed home all day, right? We know nobody has a name like Strawberryful. If you didn't do anything real, you shouldn't pretend you did."

The youngest child's face turned red, her face crumpled, her lip came out, and she retorted, "Suzy Strawberryful is just as real as your old Mrs. Pertaters" (one sibling's teacher had a name like Tate or Tatum) "or your Smelly Kelly or any of those people you're always talking about!" 

I learned something about the mind of a child that afternoon. If you are four or five years old, you probably have to spend a lot of time listening to other people's stories about things, places, and people that you never see. How do you know that those stories are true? Why can't you make up stories and tell them as if you were reporting facts, too, just like everyone else does?