Most people in the United States probably have similar memories. They lost a baby tooth. They put that tooth under their pillow. Overnight the tooth fairy came and took the tooth. In its place was a gift in the morning. For most children, it was some money. It was magical!
Some children tried to stay awake to catch the tooth fairy. Sometimes the tooth fairy didn’t come. Some tooth fairies left a lot of money. Other tooth fairies left a little money. Some tooth fairies left other gifts. And some forgot. But the basic story was the same.
Some parents work hard to be the tooth fairy. They make sure the child is asleep before reaching under the pillow. They talk about the story. They give detail. They add to the excitement. They continue as the child loses teeth. Other parents get tired of the game. They stop pretending. There is no more tooth fairy in those houses when the child gets older.
There are other stories like this between parents and children. The Easter Bunny. Santa Claus. The elf on the shelf. Magic snow people and dreidels. Maybe there are some similar stories with birthdays or other holidays. The whole family is often part of the story. Everyone pretends together. These can be called shared family fantasies. They are aimed mostly young children. But the whole family can enjoy them. What shared family fantasies are in your home? What do you remember from your childhood? These fantasies are related to play, reality and pretending, and how parents relate to children.
Studies show that…
Parents can pretend with children. They can play together. And the parents can teach about real and unreal. Both real and unreal are important ideas for parents to share.
Real and Not Real
- Very young children start to learn some things are real or not real. They do not really to try eat play food. They know a baby doll is not a real baby. They know a toy truck is not a real truck.
- They know when they are pretending. They know when they are not really doing something. They know when they are playing.
But some things can be confusing. Is the tooth fairy real or not?
What Could be Real or Not
- Imagination can make things seem real. Pretending or thinking about something can make it seem real. This can be true for children and adults.
- False or unreal events might seem true if:
- They are repeated over and over.
- There is lots of detail.
- The story is told very clearly.
- Children believe things could be real if they like those things. Children seem to believe that good things could be real.
- Children believe things could not be real if they are bad or dangerous. That could be a way to protect themselves.
The tooth fairy and other shared fantasies are repeated a lot. There is a lot of detail. Sometimes the story is told very clearly. There are even books and movies about some fantasies. And children might want to believe them. Those stories and fantasies are very positive. Children even get presents from them.
True or False?
- Most people think things are either true or false. They think there is nothing in between. Sometimes that is the case. Some things are either true or false.
- But sometimes there is something in between true and false. Sometimes things are true for one person and not for another. Or it depends on how you look at the question. Or sometimes people change their minds. Imagination can make a difference.
- Whether something is real or unreal also can be fuzzy. Some things are real to one person and not another person. And it may depend on how you look at real or unreal. Again, imagination makes a difference.
- Pretend play can be very real for children. Pretend play can be very real for some children. Sometimes they know that they are just playing. And sometimes they think play is very real.
The truth about the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus is hard to judge. Those “people” do things that real people might do. They leave gifts. There are sometimes pictures of them. Children might sit on their lap at the mall. The line between real and not real is hard to measure.
Pretend play is like fantasies. Pretend play is like the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny in some ways.
- Pretend play is important for children. It is sometimes called “dramatic play.” Children pretend to be someone or something else.
- Everyone “buys in” to the drama in pretend play. Children play with other people. Sometimes they play with other children. Sometimes they play with adults. Everyone plays a part. Everyone pretends to be someone or something.
- Each player adds “lines” in pretend play. These are lines like acting in a play. There are good lines that keep the play going.
- Bad lines end the play. Bad lines break the “spell”. After bad lines, everyone has to go back to reality.
Shared fantasies are a special kind of pretend play. Everyone agrees to pretend together. Everyone agrees to add good lines. Good lines talk about the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny. But maybe someone says, “The tooth fairy isn’t real.” That is a bad line. It spoils the play. It is hard to keep pretending after bad lines.
Parents and Play
- It is good for parents to have pretend play time with children. It can be fun. And children enjoy pretending with other children, too.
- Pretend play helps children learn. Children learn to create. They learn to think of new ideas.
- Parents can pretend to be children. And children can pretend to be parents. It gives children a chance to have power.
- Pretend play can be hard for parents. Parents are “in on” the secret. They know what is real and what is not real. They understand what the children do not know.
- Parents need to decide when to be parents first and when to play first. It works best to find a balance. Sometimes parents should be parents first and sometimes they should play.
It can be hard to be a parent and be playful with shared family fantasies. It is hard to know when children are ready to stop playing.
Making family fantasies part of your children’s life is like pretend play. Parents need to decide when to play that “game” and when to be honest. They need balance play and parenting. Children should lead the play. They can let the parents know how long they want to go on.
Next steps for parents…
It is important for parents to balance pretend play and parenting. Shared family fantasies can be a fun part of family life.
- Adults should make sure the basic values of the “story” fit the basic values of the family. Children can learn about those basic values from the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus.
- Children can take the lead in family fantasies. They should not be forced to play along. Parents can tell the stories to the children. Parents could play the game and act it out with very young children. As the children get older, it is good to ask them what they think. Parents can say, “Some children believe that…” and then say that some children believe in the tooth fairy or other fantasy. They could say that some children don’t believe. They could then ask what the children think.
- Older children can help to tell the story to younger children. It can be hard when families have older and younger children. Older children might want to tell the younger ones that the story is not real. That is a “bad line” for the pretend play. But you can ask the younger children what they think. Maybe the younger child still wants to believe. You could ask the older child to help tell the story. That child might want to play along in a more grown-up way. He or she might give “good lines.” It might make the older ones feel special.
- Parents should not use family fantasies to make children behave. They should not say, “Follow the rules or the tooth fairy won’t come.” Or “Be good or Santa won’t bring any presents.” Those are bad lines for pretend play. They don’t fit the values for most of the stories of Santa. They are not a good balance between play and parenting.
Goals for parents…
- Think about the shared family fantasies in your family. Do you talk about the tooth fairy? Is the Easter Bunny part of your family’s life? Does Santa come to your house? Are there other fantasies in your home?
- Which family fantasies do you want to keep? Are there new fantasies you want to start?
- What changes would you like to make? When will you start those changes?
- Remember earlier family fantasies. Ask older children what they remember about family fantasies. What was fun about those traditions? They might be too old to start new family fantasies. But it can be special to remember fantasies from childhood.
Carrick, N., & Quas, J. A. (2006). Effects of discrete emotions on young children’s ability to discern fantasy and reality. Developmental psychology, 42(6), 1278-88.
Hopsicker, P. & Carlson, C. (2013). To play or to parent?: An analysis of the adult-child interaction in make-believe play. In E. Ryall, W. Russell, & M. MacLean (Ed.) The philosophy of play, pp.185-195. Routledge.
Shidlovski, D., Schul, Y., & Mayo, R. (2014). If I imagine it, then it happened: The Implicit Truth Value of imaginary representations. Cognition, 133(3), 517-529.