Is Fantasy Too Uncool for Middle Childhood?

One of the dimensions of children I’m fascinated with is the role of fantasy, and how it finds outlets during the middle phases of childhood.

During early childhood, fantasy is expressed actively, through role-playing in pretend scenarios. The entire body is involved, and kids share authorship in the scenario and how it unfolds. It’s immersive and social, and often the more fantastical the better.

However, this kind of shared pretend fantasy play is so closely linked with early childhood that it quickly becomes uncool during the elementary years. It’s recognized as something little kids do. While older kids might still want to play that way, and hunger for it, they become embarrassed to do so in front of their friends. The rule of the schoolyard is that being older is cooler. Wanting to be older, or at least wanting to be seen by peers as growing up, kids have to carve out secret outlets for their fantasy needs, where they still feel safe being a kid. Often they only feel this way at home, with a few friends. Or the safest place of all, where nobody can ridicule you, is when entirely alone.

I’ve watched this progression the last year or so with my son, who is now eight-and-a-half. A year ago, he was torn between two groups at school. One group still felt safe acting out Ben 10 on the playground. The other group was beyond that; they played 4 square and knockout and soccer. My son, who is quite sensitive to these social codes, did not feel safe joining the Ben 10 group, even though he wanted to. At home, he stopped playing with almost all of his toys, except one, a nine inch tall, all-blue GI Joe ninja figure. But he didn’t play GI Joe with it – he used it as a universal battle figure. He would run around the house, with his “blue guy” held in front of him, and he’d narrate his battles, most of which increasingly revolved around sports. On any given day, the blue guy represented the university of Texas football quarterback, Spain’s striker tandem, or the Texas Rangers infield. One night, while I was watching Iron Chef, my son watched a little and suddenly he was off running with blue guy – who was now a chef. “A little garlic in the pan!” he narrated.

Somedays, when friends were over, he couldn’t wait for them to finally leave, so he could “play,” even though one might say they’d played together all day. He meant play with blue guy – his special time.  Now, when a babysitter is over, he goes up to his room to play, shoving furniture up against the door so he feels safe. Nor will he play in front of his grandmothers any more. I wonder when he’ll feel unsafe playing in front of me, and what that means.

Gradually, the joy of fantasy finds safe outlets in forms that involve the mind, but not the whole body: books and movies. This is especially true when a book crosses over to widespread popularity, such as Harry Potter or Twilight. The tipping point phenomenon is exponential, because once a book reaches a certain level of popularity, its fantasy elements become socially-sanctioned. It becomes okay to like wizardry or vampires. Kids, needing an outlet for their fantasy urges, flock to these accepted vehicles. The rules even get inverted – a kid risks being uncool if she hasn’t read them. The wonder of books is that they take hours and hours to read – letting a child be immersed in fantasy far longer than the 90 minutes of a movie.

So, what makes some fantasy stories socially acceptable? Why did Harry Potter and Twilight become so cool, when Dungeons & Dragons was never cool?
Not to play Joseph Campbell here, but it seems that for fantasy to be acceptable, the fantasy can’t come first. A story has to earn its street cred first – the reality has to feel really piercing, and then put the child in a situation of unusual responsibility. Usually, this involves not having parents around, or having parents who aren’t really in your life. Harry Potter was orphaned as a baby, then raised by his aunt, who hated Harry and instead spoiled her own dumb son endlessly. He soon discovers he has an important destiny. In Twilight, Bella ’s mother goes off with a minor league baseball player, so Bella moves to rainy Forks, Washington to live with her father – to whom she feels disconnected; she cooks for him but must take care of herself. This absent-parent setup is a way to explore a child’s desire for sudden independence, which is both their greatest wish and completely terrifying at once.

Then the fantasy has to leak out in gradual doses. In Harry Potter, he goes to wizarding school; the wizardry starts out small. In Twilight, Edward instantly appears beside Bella to rescue her from being run over by a classmate’s van in the school parking lot.

Over time, the fantasy elements have to help the story be emotionally resonant with kids’ peer dynamics. Elementary-school kids come to feel everyone is watching them, and fear making a blunder in front of others – this sensation is called by psychologists “The Imaginary Audience.” When Harry walks into a room, every kid is literally watching him (because they know the story of his parents), and they’re waiting for him to make a mistake. When they don’t like what he’s done, they don’t metaphorically turn their backs on him – they literally do.

Similarly, when Bella starts falling for Edward, it's a dangerous love – to kiss would simply be too dangerous. But then doesn't all teen love feel dangerous? Isn’t every first kiss incredibly dangerous? Like all teens, Bella  has to hide her secret from her father. Edward makes the petty stuff of teen life seem unimportant – what girl wouldn’t want that? Edward keeps telling Bella that she's too young to know how she really feels – but we know Bella's love is real.

My son doesn’t know about Twilight yet, but he does know Harry Potter. He read one of the books with his mom, and he’s seen a movie or two, but interestingly, they haven’t captured him. I sometimes wonder if the reason is he thinks the Harry Potter series is too fantastical, and I’ve worried what that says about him. I warn him all the time not to grow up too fast. He likes sports books, nonfiction even more than fiction. But this morning, as he was getting dressed, he pointed to a book he’d been reading, called The Great Quarterback Switch. “You ought to read that, Dad,” he said. “It’s really good.”

“What’s it about?” I figured he’d describe something about how the Knights were playing the Eagles for a championship, or somesuch – the usual sports action.

Instead, he said, “It’s about two twelve year old brothers, Michael and Tom. Michael’s in a wheelchair, he’s crippled from a car accident.”

“Wow.”

“Tom plays football because Michael can’t. Michael watches, and tries to guess the plays his brother is going to call. But then – it’s really cool – they learn if they really concentrate, they can switch bodies.”

“So Michael can play again?”

“Yeah. You should write books like this one Dad. It’s really cool.”

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