Make Believe: Good Or Bad?

Dear MOC,

My husband is constantly telling stories to our four-and-a-half year old. I don’t mean stories from books but stories like, “You better come inside right now. There’s a man who lives in the tree and he might come after you if you don’t.” Or, “Eat your dinner up so the little people in your tummy will get something to eat, too.” He says stuff like this all the time. He has a great imagination and is a loving dad and thinks it’s fun to make up stories like this. But I worry that he is getting my son confused. He argues with me when I say the story isn’t really true. He believes these stories hook, line and sinker. My husband says he will eventually figure it out, but it’s fun for now. Who’s right?

Sandy C.

Dear Sandy,

What a GREAT question! Stoking the fires of imagination is a marvelous thing to do for and with a child. Telling fantastical stories is lots of fun and children love it, absolutely. BUT… there is a line and it seems like there are a couple of other, not-so-great things going on here.

The first example you give involves getting your child to obey by scaring him. This is not a good idea, even though it might work pretty well.

Children this age have many fears already and their imaginations can easily run away with them. They do not need another thing to worry about, especially when it comes to their personal safety. Nor do they need to think that their own backyard is not a safe place. Even though your husband may believe that the man-in-the-tree story is a harmless little “motivator,” it can really cause your son pain in the form of unnecessary fear and anxiety.

Another reason to be careful with “stories” is that young children do not yet know the difference between real and make believe. As parents we need to help them learn which is which. Cognitively, they are working hard to figure this stuff out and can really use our help.

And, of course, there is also the issue of trust. The relationship between your son and your husband is growing and developing every day. If he wants it to be a strong and healthy one, he will be careful not to do or say anything that might threaten that. Too much story telling presented as fact could make it hard for your son to ever take his dad seriously once he starts to figure things out. He needs to be sure that when Daddy says, “This is true,” he can trust it.

Having said all that, I do believe that playing make believe is wonderful and I would encourage your husband to continue to spin stories with your son as long as he lets him know that they are just pretending.



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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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