On a recent Sunday morning, I found my son asleep on our big purple couch, his latest Bionicle inches from his nose. He’d clearly been staring at it before he dozed off.
What was he was imagining about that fierce, reticulated monster? Did he picture himself doing battle, another armored warrior? Was he contemplating the way the parts fits together?
I have no clue. But when my eight-year-old son creates his very own inner world, a place of solace and inspiration, I know he’s developing a crucial life skill. As a writer, I believe this to my bones. I don’t know any other way to be.
Yet here’s where I question my own biases. My son is also at an age when he parrots the teenagers he knows or sees in exaggerated form in cartoons. He wants an iPhone and an iPod. He wants a GameBoy. He wants to immerse himself in computer games.
All these high-tech toys would put him in his own world, too, a world in which it’s easy to avoid the scrutiny of parents. But is this so different from the imaginary worlds inspired by books and daydreaming—really? Those take you out of adult range, too.
My guy is not getting a PDA or other Internet-connected gizmo in the near future, but I do wonder if I’m wrong to distinguish between their supposed evils and whatever he’s imagining when he reads or draws.
This is not just a question about how parents spark kids’ imaginations. It’s about how much we’re willing to let our children spark themselves.
Maybe some overly solicitous parents would love to read their children's minds. They'd hold their kid's hand through imaginary fire; they'd accompany him or her every step of the way in every daydream.
I’m not immune from wanting to understand when my child is furious or unhappily silent. Yet I’m also a firm believer in private daydreaming. If my son sits staring into space—even if he complains “I’m bored!”—I don’t feel it’s my duty to entertain him or to script his imaginary play.
Again, if I take a leaf from my own writerly and introverted tree, I know I’m not driven to create anything unless it’s my own. Perhaps most important, my father introduced me to a love of books through his daydreaming example.
When my dad brought me along to the Holmes Used Bookstore in downtown Oakland, California, decades ago, I still remember the dusty landings, the tepid light struggling through cobwebbed windows, and my father’s head bent over whatever title he’d pulled from the shelves.
He’d be lost in his own world. Yet we'd be companions, too, on parallel journeys through different books. We'd wander through those crammed stacks, my dad letting me buy a title of my own choosing every time.
I didn’t like all the ones he suggested. My son doesn’t like all my childhood favorites, either. The only way I recently cajoled him into listening to me read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, for instance, was by convincing him that it would help him go to sleep.
He’d had a rough night after watching a scary movie and kept waking up. Finally, at 2 a.m., I settled down with him and started reading Tom Sawyer out loud. Within a few pages, my boy was snoring.
It’s become something of a family joke, the soporific quality of Tom. But a funny thing has happened, too, as I’ve rediscovered the music in Twain’s narrative and his observations of small-town life. After Tom manages to convince the neighborhood boys to whitewash that fence, Twain notes slyly:
“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
And so we come to the value of daydreaming, which perhaps loses its value if other people start mucking around with your inner wishes—whether through parental judgments about “good” and “bad” influences or a relentless focus on “productive” activities like music lessons and gymnastics and math and soccer or anything else that seems less fun when it feels like work.
With Tom Sawyer, my son has become less sleepy, more intrigued by the colorful dialogue and just what in the world the boring pastor was talking about in church. When Tom loses a front tooth—just as my son did last week—my boy’s eyes got wide on hearing that Aunt Polly yanked Tom's out.
Suddenly, my son was sparked by that small connection between his own experience and that of a fictional character more than a century ago. I couldn’t have predicted his tooth would fall out just as we reached that scene. But whatever inspires him, it's that spark in his eye that makes me glad, that makes me think I'm doing my job as a mom.
This past month, I’ve spent a lot of time writing and thinking about children’s books for my latest magazine project. It’s made me realize that parents and children do share a history through the books they love together. Such shared imaginary worlds can have as much power as a literal history of family events.
Yet there’s also everything one shares in private in the midst of a family. At its best, your parents provide safety and support for venturing to every inner realm imaginable—and perhaps especially to those you don’t share with Mom and Dad. A friend recently commented on my piece “Find Your Own Wonderland” that “childhood book choices, Monsieur Lacan, are a true beginning to the language of the self.”
Does one create the same rich and nuanced language of self with a video game? My kneejerk answer is no. But my son has already fallen headlong into comic books and cartooning. If I really believe in the power of imagination, then don’t I need to trust him to daydream his own way?
Yes. I think I do.
The drawing of "Skateboarding Ares from Percy Jackson" is by my son and used with his permission.