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From the archives: Visiting Africa with Burp

Continuing with the discoveries I made in my old files. This is another piece, from when our daughter was quite small, that reminded me of the charm of having an imaginative little one in the house. Yes, they still have imaginations, but they know the difference between truth and make-believe. If you have a little one who still believes passionately that her burpcloth is alive, savor it. Soon enough, it will be gone.

Perhaps I was pregnant with our second child, or she’d already arrived. I don’t remember that part. But I do remember reading an “expert” opinion about children’s imaginary friends. The expert in question supported the health of having imaginary friends, but then tossed off the opinion that children with older siblings “are seldom allowed this luxury.”

I remember reading this aloud to my husband and saying, “My child will be allowed this luxury!”

We have always enjoyed our children’s imaginations, and their imaginary friends have become part of the family. Our older son’s friend, which we spelled “Seiterint,” started out as a benign, tiny person that he carried around between his thumb and forefinger, and morphed into a Pan-like creature as likely to be naughty as good.

Our daughter’s friend started out as a burpcloth that she bonded with as a baby and became a family of “Burps,” who lived in Africa and did everything that our daughter so desperately desired to do but couldn’t yet manage.

Seiterint had an island and the island had an ecology that we learned in great detail. Burp had Burp’s own genderless set of pronouns: “Burp took Burpself to Africa in Burp’s plane.” And both of our children have eventually come to own their own airlines!

I know that all children are imaginative, but remembering that one expert’s opinion makes me question what we have done to nurture our children’s. Our daughter’s imagination is no less a part of our lives than our son’s, and we even attempt to write down some of the adorable things she says, even as our lives are so much busier with two children.

The first thing that I think we did right is that we never, ever contradicted an imaginary statement. We allowed our children to be “wrong” whenever it didn’t hurt them not to know the truth. Why should we tell a three-year-old that Africa isn’t next door? Why should we insist that our son play with “real” friends when his imaginary ones are helping him learn how to get along with others?

The next thing we did was to welcome our children’s imaginary friends like we’d welcome their real friends. When other children – or adults – seemed confused about a mention of the imaginary friend, we’d simply explain, “Oh, Seiterint is his imaginary friend.” He didn’t see that as a criticism (it wasn’t), and usually the children accepted the friend without question.

Once our daughter embarked on her own imaginary journey with her friend Burp, we made sure to keep the message clear and simple with our older son: We allowed him the luxury of having an imaginary friend, and he will do the same for his sister.

Once our son learned that this was a non-negotiable item in our family dynamic, he learned to enjoy her flights of fancy as well. As soon as he learned to spell in order to keep secrets from his sister, he started to spell his delight at cute things she had said. He was very solicitous of Burp and generally allowed Burp to take part in their imaginative play.

By this description it might seem that our children get along fabulously well and that we’re just plain lucky. Actually, they clash often and harshly. Their personalities are almost as opposite as personalities can be. But children do understand absolutes. Here in the land of plenty we have lots of picky children, but in places where people starve to death, children will pretty much eat anything that’s put in front of them. And in our house, many things are negotiable, and we see the whining and difficult behavior that children exhibit whenever there is a crack in the veneer.

But in the matter of imagination, we draw an absolute line. If food served in a pink bowl tastes more like strawberries than food served in a green bowl, that is truth. And if the imaginary friend wants to ride on the back of our daughter’s carseat and eat a chocolate donut at the grocery store, well, we’re just glad Burp is made of washable cotton.

Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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