In addition to how unbelievably cool it was to watch this movie with nearly every other seven-year-old boy in my neighborhood, I remember this movie because it came at a strangely important juncture in my developmental life. You see, I – and all my friends who also saw this movie – had just crossed the line into concrete operational thinking. This is a phrase from the developmental theory of Jean Piaget, and it refers to the capacity of children around the ages of six or seven to begin to understand basic logic and reason, or “formal operations.” This is the age that children start to learn math. It’s the age when kids stop believing in Santa Claus and start saying “Nuh-uh!” all the time. It’s the age where children begin to understand the differences between fantasy and reality.
After watching Explorers, a fellow buddy and I got into an argument on a swing set about which of us was building a better, faster spaceship.
“Well, my spaceship can blast through walls, too!” he insisted.
“So?” I retorted. “My spaceship is so fast it can break the sound barrier.”
“Yeah? Well, my spaceship is so fast, no one can see it, it’s faster than the speed of light.”
“That’s not possible!” I snapped. “No spaceship can go faster than the speed of light!
Yeah. That conversation really happened. And it happens between seven-year-olds all the time. Crossing that line into operational thinking, it is not at all strange for a child to deny a concrete operational detail within an unbelievably preposterous fantasy. So neither I nor my buddy seemed to question the premise that either of us was actually building a spaceship – hey, nothing strange about that. But the spaceships we accepted that we were building in our fantasies had to conform to the laws of physics because, duh, otherwise, you know, that’s just crazy.
In that moment, debating what our spaceships could or couldn’t do, it dawned on me how ridiculous the whole conversation really was. I knew no one was building a spaceship and that as awesome as that movie was, it was completely make-believe. I knew my buddy knew all this, too. I couldn’t have put words to it then, but I think our heated argument over whose spaceship was better was less about one-upping each other and more about our sadness that we knew that the coolest things we’d seen that day weren’t real.
According to Piaget, human beings begin to develop “formal operational” thinking around adolescence. This is the stage where the mind is able to understand symbols that represent abstract thought. This is when schools start teaching algebra and the scientific method. This is the last of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and remains throughout adulthood. Now, I’m all for abstract thought. I like it and I use it every day and I find myself frustrated when sitting in front of another person who seems incapable of thinking beyond absolute concrete propositions. Which is why it can be challenging and painful to be the parent of a three-year-old.
My daughter is only halfway to concrete operational thinking. Piaget calls her current stage “preoperational thought.” There is no separation between fantasy and reality, imagination and actual experience. This is why when we asked Curly Fries why she got in trouble at school this Tuesday, she answered, “The dragon got rain on its head, and that’s not nice.” Mmm hmm. I see.
Crazy as that sounds to us formal operational thinkers, it somewhere makes sense in her head. She lives with images and pictures that swirl about her head and interact with the external world she experiences. I know sometimes parents fret over whether it’s okay to play along with their children’s fantasies. The Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus are good obvious targets: do I really want to feed a lie to my child? Because eventually they’ll figure out that these characters aren’t real, and then what? But to adhere to that kind of logic means a very strict and austere life. It’s no different than letting your child watch Sesame Street, because eventually she will figure out that Elmo isn’t real, either. And you probably shouldn’t read children’s books to them, either. Because they’ll eventually figure out that Curious George isn’t real, and bunnies can’t actually talk, and Max couldn’t possibly have grown a forest in his room and sailed in and out of days and weeks and a year to where the wild things are. I mean, that’s just crazy.
Those of us who have been blessed to share our homes with a preoperational thinker find ourselves with a beautiful opportunity. We have a standing invitation to let go of our strict adherence to reality and indulge imagination a little. I know I tried it this week in my endeavor to understand how a dragon in the rain led Curly Fries to tear out the pages of a book in her classroom. I’m not sure I arrived at the same place as she was in her imagination, but it was kind of fun to try. Dragons don’t like rain? And tearing pages out of a book was an act of frustration in solidarity with the suffering of dragons without adequate housing in rainstorms? Maybe it wasn’t really the “dragon” who was mad that it rained all day on Tuesday.
It’s impossible to make a preoperational thinker understand the natural universe. This is frustrating, particularly when we’re trying to teach our children to behave in a particularly acceptable way. But it’s also an opportunity for us as adults to step outside the rigid structures of our formal operational world and indulge in a little fantasy. Sometimes this is the best way to engage the world. I mean, ever try to make sense of the Bible from a concrete operational perspective? Good luck. And yet how many parents encounter their children’s questions about the Bible with suspicion and fear? Try out a little fantasy some time and see if that helps you make some sense of the confusing world around you.
This is where my little girl lives all the time. And her world makes a little more sense to me if I can suspend my need for reality to fit into operational structures and treat myself to a little fantasy.
A few weeks ago during our bedtime ritual, Curly Fries bit me. She wasn’t trying to hurt me, but it did hurt, and I want to teach her not to bite people. So I cried out in pain (didn’t have to think about that part) and then told her that I didn’t like it when she bit me. She began to cry.
“Can you tell me why you’re crying?” I asked her.
“There’s a monster in my room!” she wailed.
Now, if we were all in an operational thinking mode, I would have corrected her. “There’s no such thing as monsters. Stop distracting from the issue at hand: you bit me and you feel bad about that and you should apologize!”
But Curly Fries isn’t an operational thinker yet.
“Does the monster feel bad about biting people?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she sobbed.
“Do you think the monster would leave if you said you were sorry?”
She nodded and said, “I’m sorry I bite you.”
I hugged her and said, “It’s okay, I love you. Now do you want to tell the monster it’s okay to leave now?” She stopped crying and went back to her bedtime routine, presumably because the monster had already left.
Operational thought and logical abstract reasoning is a beautiful gift and I wouldn’t give it up. But so are imagination and fantasy and fanciful whimsy. Sometimes they’re the only ways to make sense of the crazy world we live in. There are moments when I grieve how difficult it is for me to go back to my imagination, just as I felt at that birthday party, wishing I could somehow believe that I was building a spaceship I would fly into space. What helps me grieve the loss of my imagination these days is letting my sweet little preoperational thinker take me there with her. I’m not eager for her to grow out of it. It’s a lovely and exciting place for me to visit with her, and I’m a little jealous that she gets to live there all the time. For now, at least.