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How Kids Grapple with Fantasy and Reality

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Recently, my three-year-old son woke up angry at me. “You didn’t take me into the water park. I wanted to go but you went in without me!” he complained. He was truly peeved.

I was confused by such a specific and out-of-the-blue story, until I caught on that it had been a bad dream. Apparently, mommy walked into a grey building with a water park and slides and hoses and left him high and dry on the outside.

“Sweetheart, do you think maybe that was a dream?” I tried.

He dug in his heels, “No, it was not a dream! It really happened!”

He had all the details about who was there and where the park was relative to our house. Every time my husband and I proposed our nightmare theory, he got more upset.

Since Freud, psychologists have suggested that for little children, the boundary between reality and fantasy is blurry. The imaginary life of kids is powerful and sways their perceptions of the real world until they master adult rationality and logic. The famous pioneer of developmental psychology, Jean Piaget, said that kids in the preoperational stage of cognitive growth (ages two to seven) use magical thinking until they learn the properties of physics and reality – a trial and error process that takes years.

A friend mentioned Piaget’s theory to me recently as she pondered her five-year-old’s impressive powers of imagination and how he spent hours at a time creating elaborate scenarios with make-believe pirates. “Do you think he really believes they’re real?” she wondered. “Does he see them?”

It turns out that, in some ways, early psychologists were right: Little children do indeed have a hard time drawing the distinction between what is real and what isn’t, and they sometimes get confused and think that what occurs in their heads is happening in the outside world. In fact, the younger they are, the more they can be duped into believing that anything they see is real. For example, in one study, researchers showed that two-year-olds grab a paper towel to wipe up an egg that was broken in a scene on TV, and three and four-year-olds are not quite clear as to whether Big Bird is a true, yellow, oversized talking fowl, or a costumed actor. All of this suggests that a small child’s experience of make-believe sea captains, or monsters under the bed, can be just as intense as real world happenings.

But contrary to earlier psychological thought, toddlers and preschoolers don’t make these errors because they’re delusional or confused about the rules of the physical world – they ‘re actually quite sophisticated scientists with theories and understandings starting in the earliest months. Babies, for example, know simple physics and have a grasp on principles like object permanence, the idea that objects still exist when you can’t see them (which Piaget thought took much longer to develop).

The more likely reason that imagination and fact can blend together is that little kids have acute powers of perception – they ‘re experts at seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking, and imagining – but they can’t reflect on those perceptions. In other words, they think a lot, but they don’t yet think about thinking. When adults wake up from a scary dream, the primitive brain feels the emotion, but our advanced reasoning can see it with a bird’s eye view and put it in context. Kids, on the other hand, operate more from the gut, with less contemplation or insight about what they’ve experienced.

As a simple example of this, if you show a three-year-old a white cloud through a piece of red cellophane, he will likely say the cloud is red because he doesn’t yet have the ability to reflect and tell himself, “This only looks red to me, but my eyes and the red paper are tricking me.”

Around the age of four, kids turn a corner and become more aware of their own perceptions and more astute about distinguishing appearance and reality, even though it’s a process that takes time to truly sink in. One theory for why this happens is that the right brain, which processes perceptions, and the left brain, which analyses them, start to communicate better with each other, leading to a higher level of insight for kids in the later preschool years.

It’s not possible to rush this process, though – a fact that my husband and I bumped up against when we tried to dissuade our son of his conviction that the water park experience was real. You can’t easily reason little kids out of this special relationship between fantasy and reality – it’s something their brains will work through all in good time. And in the end, except in the case of closet dragons or Nemo getting swooped away from his dad, none of us wants to take away our kids’ wholehearted dedication to the imaginary.

That’s why, after my son shot down our nightmare suggestion, I switch to good old empathy: “Pumpkin, that sounds hard. You really didn’t like it when I went into the building, huh?” I think I might even have apologized for my unthinkable behavior.

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