Never confuse fantasy and “realty”.
It’s a sentence that has floated, jokingly, around my family ever since my father’s colleague uttered the bungle to him years ago. We New Yorkers, of course, never confuse fantasy and realty. But in our house we happily confuse the two all the time.
For months last year, when we were making our way through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, my kindergartner would stride around the apartment in a full pioneer girl’s getup, complete with bonnet, asking me how best to break the oxen or till the land. She committed, deeply, to the role, cut from the same cloth as Jeremy Strong and other method actors, insisting her pajamas were made of calico and roasting in the dress throughout the summer, even as she pretended a blizzard was swirling outside and she could see her breath in the air.
“You want some ice cream?” This, my preschooler asks from various perches as her imaginary ice cream stand roams the living room, the sadistic vendor offering flavors that are, often, suddenly sold out. On rare occasions, she’ll morph into a doctor, offering shots with her scoops, though she’s highly specialized, treating but one ailment: jumping so high on the trampoline that you hurt your arm. It’s some botched version of what happened to her older sister, who fractured her elbow last year after a fall from some monkey bars, but remains seared in her mind as something very bad that can be fixed with a quick injection. And in the last few weeks, her pretend play has gotten even more intense, with nightly demands for trampoline accident– related bedtime stories.
“At two and a half, three years old, the fuzziness between reality and fantasy is blurred,” Kathy Hirsh-Pasek told me when I reached her by phone. “And I think fantasy is very powerful for kids – it’s a safe place.”
Hirsh-Pasek is a professor of psychology at Temple University, where she studies child development, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. I called her in the hopes that she could put my children’s amped-up pretend play into the context of our chaotic year. Was it a plea for help, an indication that our new normal, with its constantly moving lines in the sand – you can see Nana and Papa indoors, but with masks, or maybe only outside, but at a distance; here’s a Zoom kit sent home from school before winter break, which we may have to use, but probably not – was taking its toll?
When Hirsh-Pasek’s children were in that liminal reality-fantasy age, she told me, there were real monsters in their closet.
“So we did a whole ceremony with dream catchers, we turned the mattress around, we grabbed the monsters and threw them down the toilet,” she remembered. “We were letting the kids know that they have the power to control something, even if they don’t. It’s a really powerful message.”
And it may be particularly important now, when children, however sheltered from the specifics of this rolling uncertainty, are internalizing more than we know.
“They pick up on every little thing we do, they model it, they understand it, they watch us like they are sociologists,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “And we’ve been a wreck.”
I may not be wearing a calico dress and doling out shots for hyper-specific trampoline accidents, but haven’t we all been living, a little bit, in fantasy land over the past year and a half? Every time I make and then cancel dinner plans; every time I convince myself that by this or that date, I won’t have to affix a tiny surgical mask on to my pint-sized urban doctor and send her off to preschool; every night I think I’ll forego that handful, or three, of leftover Halloween candy to take the edge off – it’s all fantasy. But, for a few moments, I live in that safe space. Kids just do it for way longer, finding real comfort in their imagination.
The kindergartner and I just finished reading The BFG, which I found to be both a particularly enjoyable way to suspend reality, but also a wonderful allegory for parenting during the pandemic. For the four people out there who have not yet read this Roald Dahl classic (spoilers ahead), it’s about a Big Friendly Giant and an orphan, Sophie, who catches sight of him one dark night from the orphanage window, as he’s blowing something into a child’s room across the way. He sees her looking, scoops her up, and whisks her off to Giant Country, where she learns that while the BFG catches dreams and blows them into children’s rooms at night, there are other evil giants who roam the world, snatching people from their beds and eating them. The plot turns when Sophie and the BFG decide to do something about it. In the end, the bad giants get captured, and, as in so much of Dahl’s fiction, the child triumphs.
“It’s offering a way to say yeah, there are some monsters out there, but guess what, we have the power to deal with them,” Hirsh-Pasek told me. “Fantasy can make things that are scary not so scary, help kids cope just a little bit better, and show them that with us, they have the power to change anything.” She paused. “Maybe that’s not 1,000% honest. I get that. But I’m down with fantasy.” (She later sent me a study concluding that young children often learn real-world information better if it’s presented in a fantastical story that violates real world paradigms.)
The other night, hoping to prolong my nightly escapes with Dahl, I looked up the name on The BFG’s inscription page: Olivia. A quick Google search heaved the moment on its axis, refocusing everything like a Hitchcockian dolly zoom shot. Olivia was Dahl’s daughter, who died suddenly in 1962, at age seven, of encephalitis brought on by the measles.
“As the illness took its usual course, I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it,” he wrote in a widely distributed open letter urging parents to vaccinate their children, published during a measles outbreak in 1986. “Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together … In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.”
He dedicated James and the Giant Peach to Olivia when she was still alive. Twenty years after her death, he published The BFG with her name at its front. As Dahl knew so well, in fantasy, you can do anything: make rivers of chocolate, fly inside giant peaches, even bring daughters back to life.
The conceit of the book, which you learn in the last few pages, is that the BFG actually wrote the thing, and just published it under another name. The night we finished, my kindergartner looked at the cover for a while.
“I don’t think that’s actually true,” she said. My heart sank, imagining her passing over that invisible boundary, from fantasy-believer to hardened realist, a transition I feared might be accelerated by the last few years. Then, as she closed her eyes and started to drift off, she mumbled, “I think what actually happened is that Sophie told the story to Roald Dahl, and he wrote it down.”
And of course, in a way, she’s right.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age