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  • Luisa Scherer

The importance of make-believe, lies and imagination in childhood

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Have you ever been surprised by a kids story? A whimsical, creative narrative full of details and plot laden with almost unimaginable elements? The answer is probably yes. It’s very common for kids to tell stories in great detail to those who live with them. And to do so, we need to experience some lies so we can create stories.

Stories and their perspectives change according to kids’ ages, as they keep up with the little ones’ development. The ability to create these narratives changes and gains new shapes and layers. 

Childhood is a favourable time for the imagination because it is the phase of life in which we learn, observe everything and notice others as well as the world around us. When we are kids, we perceive and feel frustration, joy, sadness and several other feelings we don’t even know how to name.

The questions that remain are: should these behaviors — which are quite common to kids’ daily routine — be encouraged? What is their importance to childhood? Can they contribute to the process of learning and becoming autonomous? We’ll talk about all of this and more down below!

Make-believe as self-expression 

It’s nice to see in which moments the narratives full of imagination are constructed by children and to notice what makes them comfortable. This way, it is easier to understand what is the “message” they want to convey. Sometimes there is no message, instead being simply an expression of what they see and how they manage to externalize their perceptions.

According to Deborah Moss, a neuropsychologist specialized in child behavior and a Master in development psychology, in an interview given to UOL’s Portal Bem Viver (freely translated to “Good Living Portal”), claimed that “children can use their imagination to create one or more playmates and conceive each one in very particular ways, in order to externalize their relationships, what they feel, or what they learn every day. These representations concern getting in contact with yourself.

Making up dialogues: 

In many situations, kids repeat what they hear from adults. They give voice to objects and reproduce discourses they overhear. They use their imagination and create dialogues between these objects, make up situations and also end up finding solutions to conflicts they themselves created.

This type of play is extremely positive and enriching to their vocabulary, it allows them to practice their speech and encourages their ability to handle conflicts, even if it’s all just pretend.

Imaginary Friends: 

It’s common for kids to have imaginary friends that join them throughout their day-to-day activities.

For many years, imaginary friends were associated with a lack of social skills, but that is a big mistake according to the opinion of emeritus professor Marjorie Taylor, from Oregon University—located in Eugene, Oregon, in the US. 

According to Marjorie, these friends can vary in terms of personality and level of connection to the kids’ routines. Some are characters from movies, real toys, their own image in the mirror, parts of the body, drawings and others, brought to life by their own imagination. Their period of existence is variable, lasting from a few days up to many years.

The professor has stated imaginary friends can help kids handle emotional issues or fears. She has also discussed how kids who have imaginary friends present no disadvantages concerning social cognition, differently than what many believed years ago.

In her Master’s thesis, “The creation of imaginary friends: a study with Brazilian children”, Natália Benincasa Velludo brings evidence that the “creation of imaginary friends isn’t associated with developmental shortfalls and can even be a predictor of more sophisticated skills, such as a more developed vocabulary, for example.” 

In other words, unlike what our culture preaches, kids who have imaginary friends don’t have attention problems or cognitive deficits, and they may present more robust vocabulary.

Self-confidence development

By means of stories and their creativity, kids can create imaginary characters who are strong, brave, and can handle different situations. When the little ones are in contact with these characters, they may “mirror” these stories and overcome their own fears and anguishes with the help of this incentive.

Psychologist Sally Goddard Blythe, author of the book The Genius of Natural Childhood: Secrets of Thriving Children, states that “the imagination is able to create visual images in the mind’s eye, which allows us to explore all kinds of images and ideas without being restricted by the boundaries of the physical world. That is how children start to develop problem-solving skills, coming up with new possibilities, new ways of seeing and being, which develop important critical thinking perceptions which will help them throughout their lives.”  

Kids and lies

Children lie, regardless of their upbringing or their parents’ example. Many argue that kids lie to defend themselves, to flee from a situation they don’t want to face or in order to get what they desire. Yes, that happens, but it’s not the only reason they do this. The reasons kids lie go beyond that and are part of kids’ cognitive and language development and their notion of reality.

There is evidence that children’s lying behavior is connected to executive functioning. According to the study Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children’s Lying Behavior published in 2008, executive functioning skills are first expressed at the end of early childhood and develop throughout its entirety, a time in which researchers have noticed an increase in the ability to tell lies. 

It was suggested that inhibitory control (the ability to suppress thought processes or interfering actions) and working memory (a system that retains and processes temporary information in the mind) can be linked directly to kids’ lies. When they lie, kids need to suppress the story of the transgression they intend to conceive while representing and expressing the false information that differs from reality.

In order to sustain their lies, children have to inhibit thoughts and statements which are contrary to their story and would reveal their transgressions, thus storing the content of the lie in the memory. Therefore, in order to tell lies successfully, kids must be able to juggle conflicting alternatives in their minds (in other words, what they really did/thought and what they say they did/thought).

Many lies told by kids have no apparent motive. In other words: there is no underlying goal to achieve something, escape from a situation or call out attention. They lie because that is part of the process of growing up. Kids aren’t familiar with the concept of morality and it is during childhood that they experiment things related to it for the first time. Lying is one of the ways children naturally find in order to experience these social concepts. It appears in different aspects at different childhood stages:

2-4 year-olds

At this age, language skills are arising and kids still don’t know exactly where truth begins and ends. During this period, they are unable to keep the lies they tell.

Younger kids also have a pretty unstable understanding of the difference between reality, daydreaming, desires and urges, fantasies and fears.

In other words, when kids are confronted for having something they got without permission and they deny doing so, they can express their wish that they had not taken it by saying they didn’t take it, due to a language limitation.

5-8 year-olds

Between the ages of 5 and 8, children tell more lies in order to test what they can do, especially lies related to school – classes, homework, teachers and friends. Keeping lies may still be difficult, although they start to become more and more skilled at hiding them.

According to pediatric psychiatrist Elizabth Berger, “the regulations and responsibilities present at this age are usually too much for kids. As a result, kids often lie in order to appease the forces that seem to demand more from their performances than what they can offer.”

9-12 year-olds

Most kids this age are on the right path to establish an identity of being dedicated, trustworthy and mindful. However, they are also becoming more skilled at keeping lies and more sensitive to the repercussions of their actions, and may have strong feelings of guilt after lying.

Direct and long conversations about honesty are definitely necessary, since there will be a few rare “little white lies” moments in which dishonesty is acceptable in order to be polite or to spare someone else’s feelings.

How to deal with kids’ lies? 

Although lying is a normal part of kids’ development, parents and educators can give them support in three different ways, according to an article from Neuroscience

“First, avoid excessive or over-the-top punishments. In a study comparing a West African school that used punitive punishments (such as hitting with a stick, slapping, and pinching) and a school that used non-punitive reprimands (such as time outs or scolding), students at the school with punitive punishments were more likely to be effective liars. Children from families that place a strong emphasis on following the rules and not open dialogue also report lying more frequently.

Second, discuss emotional and moral scenarios with children. This “emotion coaching” supports children’s understanding of when lies are most harmful, how they affect others, and how they themselves might feel when they lie. (...)

Third, ensure the lie really is a lie. Very young children are prone to blend real life and imagination, while older children and adults frequently remember arguments differently to one another.”

Written by Débora Nazário and Luisa Scherer

Translated by Mariana Gruber

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