For many parents, nothing is harder than playing make-believe. For whatever reason, there’s something incredibly taxing about sitting down at a miniature pink plastic table and pretending to serve tea to a teddy bear.
We have a tendency to resist our kids’ imaginations. When our kids insist that there are monsters lurking in the shadows of their bedrooms, we roll our eyes and tell them that monsters don’t really exist. Our instinct is to pull them out of their fantasies and into the real world.
We treat imagination like it’s the enemy; like it’s something that keeps our kids from listening to us and doing what we tell them to do. Sure, we know that creativity’s great and all – but sometimes, we just need to get things done.
Resisting a kid’s imagination, though, might be a bigger mistake than we realize. When you tap into a child’s fantasies, it can be an incredible tool. Yes, feeding into a child’s imagination fosters creativity – but it does more than that. You can use your children’s imagination to get them to do almost anything you want.
It stops kids from saying “No”
Every parent knows how much kids love the word no. Toddlers and preschoolers are obsessed with their freedom. Every time we try to get them to do something, they feel like it’s an infringement on their natural rights, which mostly consist of wearing pants on their heads and sticking Playdough up their noses.
You can actually get past those defenses just by tapping into your child’s imagination. Instead of telling your kids to take a bath, tell them a story about an aquatic warrior who gets his powers from water splashed on his hair. Your kids won’t feel that natural urge to push back – and they’re more likely to actually listen.
This actually works. Psychologists say that, when you bring a child out of the real world and into the world of make-believe, children stop feeling like you’re trying to impose on their freedom. Their natural urge to resist isn’t as strong when they’re in the world of make-believe, so when you use your kids’ imaginations, you’re not as likely to hear the word, no.
They Become More Motivated
Children love to pretend. When they’re imagining that they’re someone else, they come to life. They’re somehow more excited by the lives they pretend to have than the ones they actually have. When my son is himself, he’s quiet and unassuming – but when he’s Captain Hook, he can’t keep his energy at bay long enough to stop jumping off the furniture.
Usually, that’s a reckless energy that we try to control. Instead of quelling it, we can actually make use of it. Imagination motivates children. Young children will often make decisions based on what’s happening in the storylines of their internal fantasies instead of on what’s actually going on around them – and that’s something we don’t always think about.
When we play into those fantasies, we can get our kids more excited about doing what we want them to do. This is something my father-in-law is naturally great at doing. He’ll show my son videos of old baseball players and call him “Willie Mays” to get him excited about sports – and it works. Afterward, my son’s determined to go outside and play baseball. Sure, we have to call “Willie Mays” the whole time, but it gets him exercising, and gets him excited about doing it.
It Helps Them Calm Down
Your child’s imaginations can calm them down, too. When our kids get scared of monsters lurking in the darkness and other demons of their minds, our instinct is usually to remind them that it’s not real. We try to pull them out of their imaginations and ground them into the real world.
The imaginary is a lot more real for kids than it is for us. Going into their imaginary worlds and adjusting the fantasy can work wonders. Studies have found that letting kids who are afraid of the dark imagine they’re being protected by a superhero helps them more than trying to calm them down – even kids with chronic problems.
We tried it ourselves one night, after struggling to get my son to bed. He was crying, “What if bad men come in my room at night and take me away?” We’d tried convincing that it would never happen, but we weren’t getting anywhere. And then, finally, I decided to play his “What if” game with him.
“What if Superman flies in and stops them?” I asked.
He was caught off-guard. He stammered, “But, but…” before he managed to get out, “What if he doesn’t see them come in?”
“What if he uses his Super Vision?” I suggested.
My son kept giving excuses, but now I could get him to walk with me to his bedroom and put on his pajamas while we talked about it. By the time they were on, he was worrying that the criminals might be faster than Superman. I told him, “What if Superman already set up a trap on the window so that, if they try to get in, they’ll get tied up in a net?”
“Oh,” my son said, as I tucked him in. “I didn’t think of that. That’s a good idea.” And he went to bed without another word of complaint.
I’ll admit it – this is easier said than done. Getting into a child’s imagination isn’t always a cakewalk. There’s a mental exertion involved in playing make-believe that can wear a parent out. Tapping into a child’s imagination, though, is still a lot less exhausting than yelling at your kids until they listen – and it works a lot better.