What’s real, and what’s pretend?

My five-year-old daughter just received her first visit from the Tooth Fairy. Soon, of course, she’ll be visited by Santa Claus.

Being the scientifically minded parent that I am, I’m always providing my daughter with information about things like why it’s dark now when she gets up in the morning when it used to be light and why the sky is blue. But not everything I tell her has, shall we say, the same basis in reality.

No, I don’t lie to her…exactly…but I sometimes tell her certain traditional childhood fables without necessarily making it clear they are, in fact, fables. And so, naturally, I wonder, just how does she distinguish between reality and fantasy?

Jean Piaget, writing around 1930, would have said she doesn’t: he believed children consistently confuse fantasy and reality, the mental and physical, dreams and reality, and appearance and reality.

Jacqueline D. Woolley of the University of Texas, though, has carried out (with various collaborators) several studies that challenge Piaget’s blanket statement, most recently three whose results were released just last week.

The studies involved about 400 children between the ages of three to six. Some were presented with made-up words in a scientific context, e.g., “Doctors use sumits to make medicine,” while other heard made-up words in fantastical terms, e.g., “Fairies use hercs to make fairy dust.” Then they were asked which words referred to something real, and which to something made up.

They found that children who heard a factual story were more likely to think the made-up words were real than children who heard an imaginative story. This shows that, rather than simply believing everything they hear, children use context to determine what is real and what is make-believe.

This is pretty much the same method adults use. If I write, “Physicians in Germany recently cured a bad case of hiccups with a single dose of neothaliumite,” you are more likely to believe that “neothaliumite” is a real word than if I say, “The blue-tentacled alien slapped more neothaliumite on its bulging cranium, then dove into the purple sea.”

Because they used context to determine reality from fantasy, children were also better able to determine if something was real or not if the information presented was related to something familiar.

This works with adults, too. If I write, “Magnetic quark resistors combine Higgs bosons with quantum capacitors in a uniquely effective fashion,” you may very well believe me simply because I’m a science columnist and I sometimes write incomprehensible things like that, and you probably aren’t familiar with anything in that sentence. If I did relate it to something familiar, though, writing, “Magnetic quark resistors combine Higgs bosons with quantum capacitors in a uniquely tasty pizza,” you’d immediately realize I just made that up.

In another study whose title begins “Do monsters dream?,” Woolley and colleague Tanya Sharon presented pre-school children with colored line drawings of both real (e.g., Michael Jordan) and fantasy (e.g., a monster) entities and asked them twelve yes/no questions about various properties of those entities. (For example, “Do monsters dream?”) Then they asked the children to categorize the entities as real, pretend or “not sure.”

The children were just as good as adults at properly answering the questions about the entities’ properties, but were only correctly categorized them as real or pretend 40 percent of the time. However, it wasn’t that they thought fantasy entities were necessarily real, but that they chose the “not sure” option more often.

In other words, children aren’t incapable of telling fantasy from reality (a claim I’ve personally rejected since I was a child, when I remember being incensed that grown-ups thought I couldn’t tell the difference between the pretend mayhem of a Road Runner cartoon and what happens in real life if you fall off a 500-foot cliff) but simply lack the information they need to be entirely sure. In the researchers’ words, “Rather than having misplaced the boundary between real and fantastical entities, young children are still in the process of actively constructing it.”

So, if you want your child to understand that something is real, and not make-believe, present it to them as real, and related to things that are undoubtedly real. If you want them to comprehend that something is just fantasy, present it to them as a fantasy.

And if you want them to believe something that isn’t real is real, which you just might, this time of year…well, I’ll leave that up to your conscience.

I’ve got my own to struggle with.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2006/11/whats-real-and-whats-pretend/


    • Edward Willett on November 25, 2006 at 8:54 pm
    • Reply


    Thanks! And thanks for dropping by. I’ve been seeing a number of visitors from Karen’s site…

    • Becky on November 25, 2006 at 6:26 pm
    • Reply

    Great article, especially pertainent to a fantasy writer. Thanks, Ed. (I found this through a link from Karen Hancock’s blog).


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