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Believing in Make Believe

The twins have a very complicated system of what is real and what is make believe that seems to be based mostly on wishful thinking.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, the Tooth Fairy, and all the characters at Disney World are totally real.  The ChickieNob is on the fence about Ramona Quimby, alternating between asking what the grown-up Ramona Quimby is doing these days and sadly telling me that she fears that Ramona Quimby may be someone in Beverly Cleary’s imagination.  Both believe Santa Claus is a man in a costume (though have been told they will be in deep trouble if they share that thought with others unless the other person has said it first), though Befana is as real as a heart attack.

As I was washing the dishes, I listened to the twins talk about the non-fiction and fictional books they wanted to put in their reading log.

“Harry Potter is obviously non-fiction since it is the biography of Harry Potter’s life,” the ChickieNob said, self-importantly.

“JK Rowling did the research,” the Wolvog agreed.  “I would love to have been chosen to do the research.  I bet she even got to see Diagon Alley.”

Er… this is the only place where allowing their imaginations to unfold at their own pace seems to be an issue: the reading log.  Of course I can tell their teacher that the twins believe strongly in the wizarding world so she understands why Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has been marked down as the second book in a seven-part biography on the life of Harry Potter*, right below the entry for a biography of Harriet Tubman and another one for Helen Keller (we’ve been on a biography kick for a bit).

And she is free to tell them that Harry Potter is fictional.  I might warn her that other kids have tried to beat the imagination out of them, telling them the characters they met at Disney World were people in costumes.  Those kids received an eyeroll in the moment, and then the twins came home and asked why anyone would choose to believe such a thing over the idea that the princesses are real.  There was also the adult who told the ChickieNob that the Tooth Fairy didn’t exist and she gave her a look of such deep pity and said, “you must be so sad that she doesn’t visit you since you don’t believe in her.”

I’ve been told by other adults that we’re doing them a huge disservice by allowing them to think that make believe things are real, but I can’t really see what is gained by squashing the joy they feel over believing in something such as the wizarding world.  They are not using this information to obscure the reality in front of them, for instance, they still work hard in school and don’t write off math class with an excuse such as, “well, when I’m in Hogwarts…”  They are not trying to convince other children in their version of reality or take the broom by the front door and jump off the roof in an attempt to play Quidditch.  I don’t see a lot of harm in two kids believing with their entire heart that something they love is real and discussing it for hours on end while they play in the afternoon.

Maybe I’m basing this on the fact that I was the sort of child who believed in make believe, long after all other people around me had stopped thinking Alice in Wonderland was still having tea parties in England (ooooh, I wanted to meet her so badly).  I still get caught up in books that way, knowing rationally that something is fictional but still choosing to believe in the validity of Life of Pi’s meerkat island or Diagon Alley.  My whole job is essentially creating make believe worlds and make believe people and playing with them.  Actually, described like that and coupled with the fact that I work in the house and don’t see other adults for a large chunk of the day maybe is cause for concern.  But regardless, I’ve made a nice living as a writer, and I do think that the job came to me because I like to believe in make believe.  It helps you remember the world you create when you allow it to feel real, and some of those worlds and people are places and individuals that I deeply love.

My feeling is that if the twins want to believe the Harry Potter books are biographies and are willing to write down that they’re fiction in order to humour a teacher, no harm is done.  And if they don’t want to believe in make believe, no harm is done.  But if they want to believe in make believe and the adults around them beat reality into them until they finally force their imagination to change course just to please the adults around them, then there is harm done.

And if I’m wrong in not training them to stop believing in fiction, then I will pay for their therapy bills down the road and offer them a huge apology.

Do you believe in make believe?

* In their complicated system of reality — based on what I can understand from overhearing dinner table conversation while I wash dishes — the books are the complete, unabridged biography of Harry Potter’s life and the only true source for facts about Harry Potter.  The movies are re-enactments of the book which take creative license with the material and should not be trusted.  The people in the movies are all actors since (1) the real Harry Potter is 32 and therefore wouldn’t make a believable teenager and (2) wizards have better things to do than make movies about their lives.  This information is always imparted with a tone that implies, “for fuck’s sake.”


1 EmHart { 10.07.12 at 8:03 am }

Yes, yes, 100% yes. I think you are giving them a great gift allowing them to have their make believer world as long as possible. I was like you and lived in make believe for a lot longer than my friends and I think my parents every day that they allowed that. I love your twins view of the world, magic is so important in childhood.

2 Aspgriswold { 10.07.12 at 8:14 am }

Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m a firm believer in letting those imaginations run wild. I also fully believe that Harry Potter is a boography. 😉 Who doesn’t?

3 KeAnne { 10.07.12 at 9:09 am }

Hell, I wish Harry Potter’s world was real! I don’t think you are doing them a disservice. Let them have that magic and innocence for as long as possible. Maybe it will allow them to always see a bit of magic in this world.

4 Brookes4boys { 10.07.12 at 9:54 am }

I think it is wonderful to encourage children to have imaginations. Our house is filled with costumes and Legos and any type of fictional book and movie you can think of. That said, a word of caution from a Special needs Mom, when my middle son was young we encouraged fantasy and fiction. He was always dressed as one superhero or another and we loved it and encouraged it. When he was 6 he was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome and we gave no thought to what all the fantasy could do to his mind. Now he is 13 and cannot tell the difference in real and make believe. He fully believes there are people with super powers (and is impatiently waiting for his to develop) Because of this, and the fact that he talks about these make believe things as if they are real, he is shunned by his peers and frequently bullied. Also, his psychiatrist has expressed concern that he could hurt himself because of his belief in immortality and flying and such. Trying to explain to him that these things are not real brings on tantrums and adamant denial. It is heartbreaking for us.

So, encourage fantasy and imagination in your children, but try to explain as early as possible that these things are not real and are just for our entertainment. By the time we discovered our son’s autism it was too late and these beliefs were ingrained

5 Emilee { 10.07.12 at 10:05 am }

I want my future children to have the same imagination as yours do. I think it is wonderful.

6 Mary { 10.07.12 at 10:13 am }

I will let L.M. Montgomery and her eternal Anne-girl do my commenting for me:

(Anne has just been disappointed that her favorite author hasn’t come to visit, as promised, and Marilla is trying to “comfort” her.)

You’ll probably have a good many more and worse disappointments than that before you get through life,” said Marilla, who honestly thought she was making a comforting speech. “It seems to me, Anne, that you are never going to outgrow your fashion of setting your heart so on things and then crashing down into despair because you don’t get them.”

“I know I’m too much inclined that way,” agreed Anne ruefully. “When I think something nice is going to happen I seem to fly right up on the wings of anticipation; and then the first thing I realize I drop down to earth with a thud. But really, Marilla, the flying part IS glorious as long as it lasts . . . it’s like soaring through a sunset. I think it almost pays for the thud.”

7 A Passage To Baby { 10.07.12 at 10:43 am }

Alice in Wonderland is my fav book of all time and my 20 year old son still humors me about Santa Claus. He once said that he wasn’t real and I explained that he is real because he is a feeling inside. Then he TOTALLY understood.
My husband loves the fact that I have such a great imagination. I do too. Let them believe what they want. (Though I think the advice for mothers with special needs children is good.) Kids grow up too fast as it is and the world needs a little more imagination. Steve Jobs had a GREAT imagination. 🙂

8 Alicia { 10.07.12 at 11:13 am }

This is awesome. Your kids sound amazing! I love that they are convinced of Harry potter’s existence… Perfect.

9 Battynurse { 10.07.12 at 11:48 am }

No idea but I love this post!

10 HereWeGoAJen { 10.07.12 at 11:49 am }

Someone will have to prove to me that that stuff isn’t real before I will stop believing in magic.

11 Mud Hut Mama { 10.07.12 at 12:16 pm }

What beautiful imaginations. I can’t believe an adult told the ChickieNob there is no Tooth Fairy – such a shame to spoil the magic before they are ready. That world of make believe is one of the most lovely parts of childhood.

12 KnottedFingers { 10.07.12 at 12:24 pm }

I still believe in magic and I believe in faeries and things. I will until someone brings me proof they don’t exist. I let my kids believe in Santa. And every year? I write a note to Santa just in case.

A few years ago on Christmas morning I found a gift under my tree. I opened it up and it was my grandmother’s wedding ring that she lost in 1984. My husband didn’t buy it. No one had access to my house. So how that ring got under my tree and how in the hell it was found? Will always be a mystery.

While Santa Clause may not be a physical person. There is definitely a spirit of him around and sometimes good things do happen at Christmas with no way to account for them.

13 Cristy { 10.07.12 at 2:18 pm }

I live and work in a world where the only reason various discoveries or inventions exist is because those individuals have a robust and active imagination. Too often we focus on quashing “make believe” and forcing children to grow up because we deem that activity as ridiculous. Because this is the norm, children lose their sense of wonder, they quickly become bored with “reality” (which is pretty flipping boring) and they lose the ability to ask “why;” to push the norm.

I hate to imagine our world if we didn’t have those who imagined the impossible, be it Santa Clause (I’m with KnottedFingers on that one), Harry Potter, Steve Jobs and even Mickey and Minnie. To imagine that humans could walk on the moon, explore the depths of the ocean or visualize the inner workings of a cell.

In short, please promote their imaginations. And keep us updated on when they find Diagon alley.

14 Elizabeth { 10.07.12 at 3:06 pm }

My parents didn’t like the idea of Santa Claus (too pagan), but instead taught us that angels, demons, and the Holy Spirit are real and ever-present though invisible around us. As I child I populated my world with mermaids, fairies, and even (in 4th grade) tiny invisible dwarves that lived in my desk at school. That was the year I worked very hard to maintain belief in fantasy creatures, but belief in the supernatural persisted until my 20s. I think belief is profoundly human.

15 tigger62077 { 10.07.12 at 3:10 pm }

I think that letting them believe in magic (not necessarily of the wizarding kind, but that magic exists in the world) is one of the best gifts you can give your child. As long as they aren’t doing anyone any harm (lighting things on fire with fire spells, trying to fly on the brooms, etc) and they continue to separate true reality from fantasy (when I grow up, i’m going to be an elf!) then it’s all good. Wonder is good in this world, and there’s not nearly enough of it. It powers imagination, and imagination powers experiments, and experiments change the world in ways unimaginable to most of us. Let them be kids, don’t make them join the “adult” world too fast. They’ll find their way there eventually, and the more of their wonder and ability to suspend disbelief that they can keep, the better they will be, I think.

Wonder and a belief in the magic of the world help us help others. My mother LOVED being the “Christmas Fairy” for someone every year. I swear it was one of her favorite things – getting things for people, leaving them anonymously, keeping her cool when they raved about them to her. I want to be that person for my kid, at the very least!

16 Her Royal Fabulousness { 10.07.12 at 3:44 pm }

I think as long as you aren’t actually telling them that make believe things are real, and instead are just allowing them to hold the belief, it is fine. Time and their peers will take care of revealing the truth. After all, imaginary play disappears quickly from kids, and we should preserve it when we can. I actually avoid questions about Santa and the tooth fairy like the plague in my classroom because I find other kids to be the best source of the truth in these cases. But, I wouldn’t want adults actively building the falsehood. There is a difference between allowing imagination to exist and going out of your way to reinforce a false truth. Does that make sense? And by “you” I don’t specifically mean you, Mel. I mean adults in general.

17 loribeth { 10.07.12 at 5:02 pm }

I think it’s wonderful that they have such active imaginations. Bless you for encouraging it. Reality will intrude on their worlds soon (& sadly) enough…

One of my friends told me when I was in Grade 3 that Santa didn’t exist. I have never SAID I didn’t believe in him, though… and every year, my stocking still gets filled. ; )

18 Stupid Stork { 10.07.12 at 8:06 pm }

I’m just trying to absorb that you’re implying Harry Potter is fictional…

19 Jessica { 10.07.12 at 8:16 pm }

Oh don’t you love their imaginations? My surviving triplets are younger than your twins but I love listening to them pretend and the worlds that they can dream up together. We are just ending a full day in which my son would only answer to the name “Buzz Lightyear” and I intend to let them continue that way for as long as they like.

20 a { 10.07.12 at 8:50 pm }

My daughter asks what’s real and what’s not. And then she makes up stories and asks for supplies for her school – and then I get irritated with her when I go on a big, long diatribe about why she can’t do this or that because it’s against school rules…and then she tells me “No, Mom. I was talking about MY school. The one for all my stuffed animals.”

I think it’s good for kids to believe in magic, but only to the point where it doesn’t interfere with reality.

21 Brid { 10.07.12 at 10:29 pm }

I don’t believe in a true reality, so of course, I tell my son to see all the different realities, and believe in all the other possible realities, even the magic/magical ones… they are often the best, anyhow.
When he was about five, we were on holiday a short while before Christmas, and he swam over to me and told me that one of his classmates had said that there is no Santa Claus, and that it’s the parents who stuff the stockings… My heart dropped and I started to feel the panic welling up inside. He was only five, and I couldn’t believe that he’d lose that innocence so soon. I did the usual and asked him what he thought.
He looked at me and swam away. About 15 minutes later, he brought the subject up again. He concluded that his friend’s parents probably do provide his presents… After all, he said, Santa won’t come to your house if you’re on the naughty list.
Whew… That’s belief saving belief!

I think you’re doing exactly the right thing by letting them believe… consider the dreary alternative.

22 Stinky { 10.08.12 at 4:11 am }

This is something I’ve felt quite strongly about, but you’ve framed it slightly differently to how I looked at it. And I know this goes against the grain, hell, this has got me no end of shit with ‘certain people’, but I am really not sure (if I get to parent in the end anyway) how I would promote the myth of Santa/Tooth Fairy etc, without actually lying outright to my kid. I feel really strongly about bringing up a child with a value to be honest and tell the truth, when I’m maintaining something I know to be a distinct non-truth. And by no means do I suggest that I would want to be bursting the fictionbubble for all and sundry (I’m pretty sure I wrote a post on this in the last 12 months), far from it; I really struggle with this idea.
Then again, I’m all for active imaginations and kids to be able to access their own and be able to play alone/with friends etc without relying on latest gadgets to entertain them (I know, such a hippy!), and I know its really important to play at make-believe on all levels. I never thought of the Santa thing from the perspective of imagination – other than needing to use my own to maintain a ‘story’ that feels ok for me to tell.

I like Brid’s answer above, and I know I can tie myself up in knots (especially with this idealistic non-parenting I know I’m doing right now) with questioning reality at the best of times – I know people – grown ups – who believe in angels, fairies, whatever – who am I to say whats real or not for another person?

23 lifeintheshwa { 10.08.12 at 12:39 pm }

Kiddo is totally encouraged in all aspects of make-believe and I would never discourage it so long as it doesn’t interfere with everyday life. “Be-etend” is one of the best games around.

24 Jillian { 10.08.12 at 6:35 pm }

My oldest son fully believes that he is going to get his letter from Hogwarts when he turns 11. I’m kind of hoping it comes too…

25 luna { 10.09.12 at 2:20 am }

I just love the last line.

what’s a world without a little magic and make believe anyway?

26 Mali { 10.10.12 at 6:51 pm }

I loved the last line too. I love the idea that JK Rowling was just the researcher! That’s brilliant! But I fear for their little hearts when they find out the truth. How might it happen? Will they be mocked? Will they – obviously wonderfully intelligent and imaginative children – be embarrassed that they didn’t know? Will they lose trust in those who let them believe? Or will it all slide off them, not bothering them? I hope it’s the latter.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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