The Washington Post

The benefits of playing make-believe with kids

Q. My precocious 9-year-old daughter and I had our first conversation about the tooth fairy when she was 3. I said, “I’ll bet if we say some magic words we might even be able to see a fairy.”

Since I’m a college teacher, I had a laser pointer in my pocket, so I slipped it out as we said those words, and it flashed a moving red dot around the ceiling. A fairy, we decided, could well look like a red dot to those with mortal eyes.

We did this every few nights, and I made up a story about how my great-grandfather had freed the father of this fairy (Mary Frances McCarthy, by name) from servitude in New Orleans in 1845. I told her that this created a special relationship with our family and that the fairy was willing to show herself to my daughter and me — but not to anyone else.

These showings continued off and on for a few years, and then my daughter said that she’d like to ask her fairy a question. I said okay, and she carefully wrote a short letter — in her best second-grade handwriting — and taped it to the foot of her bed. I answered, using my computer’s handwriting font and bright red ink. Now my daughter writes to Mary Frances about once a month, and I, of course, respond.

Even though my daughter noticed that her fairy doesn’t show up on the ceiling unless I’m with her, she told her third-grade classmates about Mary Frances, and they made fun of her for believing in fairies.

(Hadley Hooper/For The Washington Post)

I think this has gone too far, but I don’t know how to walk myself down from this limb. I want my daughter to think of these visits from her fairy as a happy memory and not a trick that I’ve played on her. Should I talk with her about it now and explain the laser pointer or let her figure it out for herself one day?

A. You’re asking the wrong person. Kelly children not only had Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy, but many other imaginary visitors, including Jake, the tin man who gave out sweet dreams, and Harry the Bear, who was chased out of the house with a broom one night because he jumped into one of those dreams.

Your daughter may have begun to doubt the existence of Mary Frances McCarthy, but she’s not ready to hear the truth because she still likes to talk to her and write to her and particularly to spend this special time with you. When she does realize that her fairy was just the beam of a laser pointer, however, she won’t look at it as a dirty trick but as a memory that warms her heart.

A child needs imaginary visitors because the good ones are so entertaining and the bad ones help her figure out how to handle bad people. Like in homegrown fairy tales, she is the hero in these scenarios, though her parents may have to show her how to triumph over the big bad wolf.

Finally, an imaginary playmate strengthens and stretches a child’s imagination, which is vital to her development. You had to prune your daughter with many necessary warnings when she was small — “Don’t run in the street!” “Don’t play with matches!” “Don’t scrub the toilet with your toothbrush!” — but you shouldn’t bind her imagination any more than you should bind her feet. Childhood is the time for the mind to expand, not contract.

If your daughter’s imagination is stretched when she’s young, and if she is given a little empty time every day so she can use it, she might invent a new way to travel when she grows up or find a better way to program a computer or a cheaper way to take the salt out of salt water. It will be quite enough, however, if she simply becomes someone who looks for unusual answers in unusual places. Original thinking may exasperate her more literal classmates, but it will help her solve problems much more quickly, and this will delight the people she works for as well as those who work for her.

If these arguments don’t convince you, there are some fine books on the subject, including “The House of Make-Believe” by Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer (Harvard University Press, 1992, $37) and “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them” by Marjorie Taylor (Oxford, 2001, $33); Kindle editions cost much less.

Once you understand the value of invisible playmates, you may wish that Mary Frances could drop by for lunch one day and bring a few fairy friends with her.

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