“Kids need a good dose of reality so that they can start to learn how the world works.”

“But they’re just children, let them play pretend for a little while longer.”

If only Peter Pan would just grow up. Doesn’t he know that playing pretend can’t last forever?

In the modern and oh-so-evolved world of today, this same push and pull exists. The question of when should “immaturity,” in the form of dressing up, imagining and playing pretend, be put aside is pervasive as we try to ready our children for the increased rigors of academic and social life. Should we push our children to instead embrace the “real world” and the responsibilities that they will encounter there?

What good is pretending?

There are numerous studies on the benefits of pretend play for kids (here’s one article from Psychology Today). Besides exercising creativity (and therefore, the brain), pretending allows kids to hone their negotiating skills as they invent rules and parameters for playing with other children. It can increase language and cognitive skills. It promotes flexibility since stories and rules can change when we’re pretending… as we all know when we’ve played pretend with a kid (“Since when are we on Mars? I thought we were trapped inside a volcano.”). There are even indicators that early interventions for children from low socio-economic backgrounds that involve imaginative play benefit their school readiness.

Imagination and pretend seem not to be a waste of time at all, but are essential to their development. Aside from these very specific benefits,  playing pretend is FUN! We rarely read about promoting fun for fun’s-sake in articles about parenting. Passing the time, learning to entertain themselves, and FUN are all great reasons for using imagination. If we adults were better at some of these skills, we might be a little more fun (and maybe less stressed?) ourselves.

So, the verdict on pretending? TWO THUMBS UP!

But on the other hand…

What good is “reality”?

Reality, responsibility, doing chores and homework… It all sounds so boring and adult. I’ve heard myself say to kids, “If you want to trade jobs, just let me know. I’ll gladly trade my responsibilities for yours.” We’re very quick to remind them that as they get older, the world isn’t so peachy and carefree any longer. We view ourselves as the harbingers of their adult destinies. It’s our responsibility to help them be prepared for the “real world.”

Chores and responsibility are necessary, not only to give kids a dose of their coming responsibilities, but also to encourage them to see that they are not the only people in the world. Their roles as helpers and doers impact others as well as themselves. I love child-sized responsibility.

But just as with pretend, reality has its place. We don’t want kids to live entirely in a world of fantasy, just as we don’t want them to live entirely in the world of reality. Many children are lucky enough to be able to straddle these two worlds, as adults find it harder and harder to do so. Just as Peter Pan forgot about Neverland once he had left it (at least according to Robin Williams in Hook), we forget about our ‘pretend’ abilities.

So don’t hurry kids into having too much responsibility … but still give them some level of  ‘responsible’ reality.

{{See, no straight answers.}}

As I shop for Halloween candy, I’m looking forward to the season of visible pretending. It’ll be FUN to see how kids’ creativity and maybe even some of their own ingenuity and responsibility turn them into ghosts, cavemen, superheroes and puns.

Let the pretending begin!