Child Development Stages – Teaching Children to Differentiate Reality from Fantasy
A 4 1/2 year-old boy when asked “what is your name?” says with conviction, “My name is Thomas!” The adult only finds out the next day that the little boy’s name is really William. Why, then, did the boy reply “Thomas!”? Thomas the Tank Engine is his favorite cartoon, and he strongly identifies with it. A group of three 9 year-old boys in school are quite certain that Spiderman is real. In fact it takes some convincing to persuade them that Spiderman is a cartoon or a man in a suit. At the end of the conversation with a teacher they are still not quite convinced. (Neither of these stories with lessons in child development involve special education children).
Another 8 year-old fatherless boy states confidently, “Superman is real! He wears a cape and flies….” A nearly 4 year-old child, tying a cape to his back, enthusiastically jumps out of a New York apartment window, crying out, “Superman!” Astonishingly, the boy landed in the mud, having fallen six stories, surviving the incident without serious injury, able to relate the captivating anecdote years later as a well-adjusted adult.
And in a similar, but nuanced version, of this theme, an 11-year-old fatherless girl recovering from the traumatic abuse she incurred as a child speaks with conviction about her “band” in school, “her boys”, play while she sings, demonstrating her musical prowess on her iPhone to adults with recordings of the music she wrote and recorded. Awesome! The music is fantastic, very professional for a school band…As it turns out, the music was professional, that of Miley Cyrus during her prime youthful years during the apogee of her teenage singing career. The preteen carries on the ruse for months to adults not familiar with Miley Cyrus music. Part of the psychology behind this story involves strong identity with the emotions of the music: “I wrote this song about my mother.” “I wrote this song about my best friend.” “I wrote this song when I was having problems in school.”
A 9 year-old girl, almost 10, a fourth grade public school student, was asked in the month of January right after Christmas, when she discovered that Santa Clause was not real. She stated, “I just found out this Christmas,” describing how she and her brother finally came to unravel the universal parent-child deception of Santa Clause. “You never knew that Santa Clause wasn’t real?” she was asked by an adult. “I didn’t have a clue,” she responded with a nearly grown up voice. She didn’t let on to her parents, though, she said, because she wanted to [make sure] she got the new Barbie set she was hoping for. Another set of siblings, a brother and sister, at 9 and 7 years old, run through Disney World in Orlando Florida, procuring signed autographs of Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and the rest of the Disney gang, totally oblivious to the idea that these are fantasy creatures. For them, the Disney characters are 100% real. Only as years progress does the fantasy gradually fade into reality.
Research indicates that children begin to learn the difference between fantasy and reality between the ages of 3 and 5 (University of Texas, 2006). However, in various contexts, situations, or individual circumstances, children may still have difficulty discerning the difference between fantasy and reality as old as age 8 or 9, and even through age 11 or 12. For some children this tendency may be stronger than with others. The benefit of teaching children the difference between reality and fantasy is something that parents, educators, and psychology professionals should take note of.
One area where children benefit from learning the difference between fantasy and reality is with children’s nighttime fears. Child Psychology research headed by Professor Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences have found that understanding the difference between fantasy and reality helps children overcome their nighttime fears.
Widen and Russell of Boston University, in a report entitled, Fantasy vs. Reality: Young Children’s Understanding of Fear, conclude that current studies suggest “that preschoolers more readily associate fantastic, nonrealistic creatures [such as ghosts and monsters] with fear”. When adults such as parents, teachers or mental health professionals teach a child to discern the difference between fact and fiction, children can more easily overcome irrational fear.
Considering another angle on the stages of child development, teens often pick up on cues and assimilate ideas presented in movies/films viewed in the movie theater and other sources, (online sources for watching movies now eclipse movie theater viewings or film DVD rentals for teens), and while teens already understand the difference between fantasy and reality, they may still absorb or become attached to ideas that are powerfully presented in films but that have no basis in reality, the teen not having enough experience or knowledge to sort propaganda from fact, fiction from reality. Films, television programs, music and statements from celebrities can [and do] become a part of the thinking and emotional/psychological makeup of teens and children.
Psychologists and counselors, teachers and parents can and should be aware of the need for children and teens to think critically and to learn to separate reality from fantasy, fact from fiction and propaganda.
Child Development Stages – Teaching Children to Differentiate Reality from Fantasy – References:
Young Children Learn to Distinguish Between Fact and Fiction, Research at University of Texas at Austin Finds. (November 27, 2006). University of Texas at Austin. http://www.utexas.edu/news/2006/11/27/psychology/
Fantasy-reality confusion a primary cause of childhood nighttime fears. (November 13, 2012). Science Daily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121113134926.htm
Widen, Sherri C., Russell, James A. (2007). Fantasy vs. Reality: Young Children’s Understanding of Fear. Boston College – Presented at the Association for Psychological Science Conference,
Washington, DC. https://www2.bc.edu/james-russell/posters/themes%20in%20fear.pdf
Zisenwine, T, Kaplan, M, Kushnir, J, Sadeh, A. (February 2013). Nighttime fears and fantasy-reality differentiation in preschool children. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 2013 Feb;44(1):186-99. doi: 10.1007/s10578-012-0318-x. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22760490