Kids under age six are not lying to you, not exactly. When they want something to be true, they genuinely cannot tell that it isn’t. When they fear something might be true, no amount of reassurance is enough, because whatever they project onto the world is indistinguishable from the world itself. My five-year-old really believes his classmate told him it was okay to cut her hair with craft scissors, and he is not trying to manipulate me when he says the monster will emerge from behind his dresser if I turn off his bedroom light. His imagination is as real to him as anything he can touch.
Of course, adults are not always able to distinguish between the world and their mental projections upon the world. We all slip sometimes, a few of us slip a lot, and a very few cultivate slippage deliberately. We like imagining that we could shuck this dreadful adult ability, or avoid developing it at all, as the protagonist of Michel Gondry’s gorgeous film The Science of Sleep does. The thing is, for all of us, there was a long time in childhood when any boundary between reality and fantasy always seemed more like an arbitrary exercise of power on the part of the adults in our lives than like an externally real fact we had to cope with. Why must my son hold my hand when we cross a parking lot in the dark? He believes he is impervious to cars, and can say so using the word “impervious,” so clearly the hand-holding rule must just be Mommy’s power trip.
It doesn’t help that the real world is weird, and so complicated that grown-up attempts to explain it at a child’s level only pump up the weirdness.
Consider my husband’s attempt to explain evolution:
First, something strange and mysterious happened in the oceans, and the first life began. There were one-celled creatures, and some of them became fish. Some of the fish climbed onto land and became reptiles and dinosaurs. Some of the reptiles turned into mammals, and all the dinosaurs that survived the asteroid collision turned into birds. Some of the mammals turned into monkeys, and some of the monkeys turned into us.
My five-year-old later attempted to explain evolution to my two-year-old. These were his exact words:
First there were fish. Then some of the fish turned into gods. One of the gods ate a fish and turned into a bird, so all the gods turned into birds. And they all lived happily ever after, the end.
Okay, it ain’t exactly Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The point is, to my sons, that story is no weirder than the best available science, and none of the reasons it couldn’t be literally true can stand up to the developmental limitations of early childhood. Or at least, not for long. Gareth can ask whether the magic land of Equestria, the setting of My Little Pony, is a real place, and he can seem satisfied with my answer, but a week later, here comes the same question again. Equestria was imaginary last week; maybe this week it’s real.
I both long for and dread the flip of the developmental switch that will come soon. I am so weary of resorting to because I said so when all explanations of physics, law, empathy, and epidemiology inevitably fail to stick. Veteran parents tell me life will improve dramatically once my kid can grasp that there is an external reality that persists no matter what anyone says. Influenza germs, for instance, cannot be persuaded to be nice to us if we are nice to them. Germs do what germs do.
On the other hand, I will miss his blithe mythologizing, and I will miss seeing him try to extend his vast kindness even to viruses.