A week or so ago, we were playing this game in the car on a ride home. Her mother was the primary storyteller, and Curly Fries asked for a story about her buddy A.
“Once upon a time, there were two kids named Curly Fries and A. They were best buddies. They got together to play one day. Where were they playing?”
“Umm…” Curly Fries always takes a few moments to consider the best possibility. “Outside.”
“They were playing outside. They played with a ball and kicked it around the yard. What did they do next?”
“Then they played on the swing set. They swung in swings side by side, going higher and higher and laughing the whole time! But it was starting to get dark, so they had to go inside. What did they do when they got inside?”
“Umm… Went back outside.”
My spouse laughed. “Okay, they went back outside and played in the yard a little longer. But it was dark, and they had to go back inside. What did they do inside?”
“Umm… Went outside again.”
“But it’s dark outside!” my spouse protested. “It’s time for them to go inside.”
“Honey,” I interrupted. “This is a story. Her story. I don’t see why they can’t play outside in the dark in her imagination.”
“Well, it’s dangerous to play outside in the dark,” my spouse said sheepishly.
“Then make that part of the story,” I suggested. “She can handle it.” Then I picked up the rest of the story: “So Curly Fries and A. went back outside to play in the dark. What did they do?”
“Umm… Played with the ball.”
“Great!” I continued. “So they played with the ball. A. kicked the ball really hard, and it rolled out of the yard and into a forest. They chased the ball into the forest, kicking it further and further. But then they looked up and saw that they were lost in the deep dark forest!”
In the back seat, Curly Fries gasped. “Oh no!” she shouted with genuine panic. “What happened?!” My spouse shot a look-what-you’ve-done-now glare at me and I suddenly felt guilty for being so flippant with my child’s imagination.
“What do you think happened next?” I asked.
Without a hesitating “umm,” she said, “Go back home.”
Toddlers may be the most imaginative creatures on the planet. They’re poor storytellers, because their brains haven’t yet developed the capacity to construct coherent cause-and-effect narratives. But they are old enough to recall and repeat specific details about what happens around them. I can trust that the concrete details of what my daughter tells me are accurate. One evening after spending a day with her grandparents, Curly Fries came home and said, “There’s a yellow man under Grandmommy’s house.” Turns out this was true: they had had an exterminator come to inspect for termites while she was there, and he had checked the crawlspace under the house wearing his bright yellow uniform. Although she couldn’t tell me why there would be a yellow man under Grandmommy’s house, the details in her mind were vividly correct.
Toddlers exist in a world composed completely of their own experiences. This is a beautiful mess that has real-life encounters mixed in with their imaginations. Everything my daughter sees, hears, or touches is fair game: the exterminator in the house, the trucks we pass on the way to school, the animals in the books she reads, the main characters from Monsters Inc., the dragons in her dreams. There are no lines in her mind separating them from one another; all these images comingle and coexist in a vibrant tapestry of creative invention. She can tell me what they’re doing and what they look like; she just can’t tell me why.
As I said, this makes toddlers terrible storytellers. When she tells me one of her playmates at school bit her, I can trust that part. What I probably can’t trust is her reason for why. “She was mad” is likely true, but it does conveniently leave out the part about how Curly Fries’ playmate was mad at her because Curly Fries stole her doll. She’s not leaving that part out as a ploy to protect her innocence; she truly doesn’t understand the cause-and-effect. But she remembers the experience itself.
As adults, we would be tempted to think that the lack of a sense of causality would limit a person’s imagination. If you can’t understand the “why” behind anything, what is left? A lot, as it turns out. We adults, long used to our concrete operational thought processes, pretty much require the “why” to everything we see and hear. That’s the only way things make sense to us: cause and effect. Whether we’re speculating on the histories and motives of terrorists or trying to parse Don Draper’s mysterious inner workings, we always need to understand why.
Toddlers are completely free from this constraint, and therefore live in a far more intuitively rich imagination. Picture for a moment, if you even can, what it might be like to be free from needing to know why something happens and be able to just soak up the rich, brilliant experience of something. You don’t need to know what Mona Lisa is smiling about. You don’t need to understand the way moisture reflects light in a rainbow. You don’t need to understand why there are polar bears on the island. You can just bathe in the way these experiences make you feel.
That last point – that freedom from determining causality opens us to the deeper emotional response – is what makes toddlers such beautiful dreamers. Their intuition is so raw and unpolished that they can pick up the deeper emotional levels to the world far more fully than we adults usually do. They don’t understand the content of most of what we say. But they understand the emotional experience of hearing what we say more fully than even we experience it as we say it. Curly Fries doesn’t understand the concept of pain she is causing me when she hits me or bites me; but she certainly does understand the way it feels to her when I cry out and scold her. Toddlers don’t understand what it means to share their toys; but they do understand the way they feel when they don’t have the toy they want, or when another child cries at them for having the toy they want.
Or when an adult scolds them for not sharing. Although one point I want to make in this post is that we should be more open in honoring the rich imaginative lives of our little people, the other point I want to make is to remind us as parents that our children are particularly sensitive to the anxieties and fears we have. They don’t need to know what’s going on to know when we are concerned or frightened or confused. When we scold our children for not doing something they’re not capable of doing, it doesn’t teach them to do that thing; it only instills a sense of anxiety and an underlying belief in their inability to measure up. This phenomenon is painfully illustrated in the near-universal experience of children of divorce believing that they are responsible for their parents splitting up when this is almost never the actual reason. Our children’s rich inner imaginative life isn’t just a lively reminder to us of the whimsy and joy to be found in the experiences of life, but also a tender and delicate vulnerability with which we must take great care.
A child’s imagination is deeply intuitive and sensitive. We adults could stand to be reminded of the gifts that come with such an unfiltered emotional interface with the world. We also must be mindful of the ways our children need to be safe to freely engage the world. Telling stories in the car is in many ways the perfect place for Curly Fries to experience the fearfulness of a dark, lonely forest: she was in control and always in an actually safe and warm environment. But in the moment, she didn’t feel the safety and warmth; she felt the darkness and uncertainty.
In some ways, our toddlers’ imaginations are like a young superhero discovering a volatile superpower: their potential is amazing and inspiring, but potentially dangerous and overwhelming. How lucky we are to be the guardians and custodians of such fertile gifts in our children! May we never lose sight of the ways these imaginative creatures deserve our admiration and security.