There’s a fine line between fantasy and reality for children. My parents like to recount a story about when I was five and pretending to pass out imaginary coins… my father walked over to playfully spin me around in a circle and I panicked as he lifted me up, squeezing my fists so the “coins” didn’t fly out everywhere.
It’s a story of how pretend things seem so real to children that they can have visceral, involuntary reactions to them… even when they know it’s pretend. It seems funny to adults, but are we so different? We are traumatized by Glen’s death on The Walking Dead, or Ned Stark’s on Game of Thrones. Even though we know it’s all make-believe.
And on that note, my daughter Bridget is four now, which may represent the apex of blurring imagination with reality (and her imagination is a little dark). It leads to conversations like the following, where I was tired one day and decided to phone lunch in by driving to Taco Bell…
Me: Bidgie, do you want cheesy roll-ups or a taco for lunch?
Bridget (from the backseat): Want HOT tacos.
Me: Okay, I’ll get you a hot taco. The fiery loco kind?
Bridget: NO dragon bones.
Me: Hot taco, no dragon bones. Got it.
Bridget: I DON’T WANT TO EAT DRAGON BONES.
Me: I have NEVER tried to make you eat dragon bones.
Bridget: No SNEAK dragon bones IN MY TACO!
Me: Pshh… fine.
Bridget: OKAY? Okay. And hot sauce, please.
(I have NO idea where she got the idea that I’d sneak dragon bones into her tacos, except I used to read Dragons Love Tacos to the girls and she somehow conflated the two.)
Or this time, when I was trying to calm Bridget down but her big sister Brontë knew better how to reassure a 4-year-old. Maybe because Brontë is 6 and still understands the way 4-year-olds think.
(Bridget screams in the middle of the night. I run to her room and find her sobbing.)
Bridget: I scared of monsters…
Me: There’s no monsters, sweetheart.
Bridget (frustrated): I scared of monsters biting my toes!
Me: There’s no monsters biting toes. That was just pretend. The boy in the book was pretending to be a toe-biter and kicking his blocks over like he was wrecking a city. There were never any monsters.
Bridget: Monsters gonna BITE MY TOES OFF!
Me (hugging her): There’s no such thing. That whole book was just pretend. Monsters are just pretend.
Brontë comes wandering in: What’s wrong with Bridget?
Me: She’s afraid monsters are going to bite her toes off. It’s strange how she likes ghosts but is afraid of monsters.
Brontë: Monsters are actually much scarier than ghosts at her age.
Me: Hmm… well, Bidgie, it was just pretend. The boy was using his imagination and he was always safe.
Bridget: I SCARED ABOUT MONSTERS EATING MY TOES.
Brontë: Bidgie, there are NO monsters like that in California. They don’t even live here. All we have is bees. Toe-biters live in OTHER states.
Brontë: I promise.
Bridget, looking very relieved, lays back down and wishes us both goodnight.