My spawn (hereafter known as Stepladder, thank you Cheezburger) has a really amazing, overblown, out of control imagination. When she was a little girl, like 3, not the mature nearly-seven she is now, she said she had 105 imaginary friends. Now, she says she has “infinity a hundred”. These friends include characters from books, shows and video games as well as characters she just makes up – current favourites in the roster include Nellie, Aradia and Joy (the baby spiders from Charlotte’s Web), a siamese cat called Rainbow Magic, another cat called Cinnamon Bread, Yoshi (yes, Nintendo’s Yoshi), Mystery Yoshi and Lystery Yoshi. She goes to the playground with them, makes up stories with them, and plays a variety of games with them at home and school. Basically, wherever she goes, she has an invisible entourage.
Her imagination is part of what makes her who she is, like her long hair which is the result of her fear of the hairdresser, or that she chooses to be vegetarian, or has iron hard calf muscles. Sometimes it makes her delightful, sometimes it is annoying, but we work around it, and accommodate it, the same way we work around the other quirks by spending a lot of time brushing and braiding, feed her cheese instead of chicken, and put a rebounder in front of the television so she can jump and watch at the same time.
Yes, I let my kid watch television in moderation – she tends to watch DVDs rather than actual tv shows, and she plays games on the wii and her computer. I know that in some circles this makes me a Bad Parent, but I would rather not let my kid grow up being a pop culture doofus. This is really how I am molding her in my image, come to think of it – I mean, as this blog attests, I love Chaucer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also love lolcats.
Stepladder seems to exist in direct defiance of that popular opinion that “kids today have no imagination” which is usually said to be the fault of electronic media. In fact, she uses electronic media, and other media, and her real life experiences, to create her incredibly lively imaginary world (hence Yoshi and his side kicks). So if it isn’t the much vilified electronic media, what is it? I have been thinking a bit about creativity and imagination because I have noticed the ways in which they are challenged.
I’m not going to be so ridiculous as to say that a big imagination is like a disability, because it isn’t. However, as I suggested, imagination is part of my child, and it is part of her all the time, regardless of whether it is convenient. As a parent, I have a choice about whether I foster her imagination, or tolerate it, or try to modify her behaviour. I never really thought about how much I was doing to foster her imagination until recently, when another parent asked me that question. This has also made me reflect on how imagination is actually perceived, which I think is not exactly the same as the romanticised reactions there are to it in the abstract.
For example, I had a meeting a month or so ago with Stepladder’s teacher, and the principal of the school (the reason for the meeting has to do with they way parents who are academics tend to make primary school teachers shit themselves, which is, no doubt, a topic for another post). Anyhoozle, at one point in the meeting, Stepladder’s imagination came up, at first in a context that seemed positive: she’s fantastic at making up stories in language arts, she always responds to writing assignments with a wealth of material. Translation: other kids write 2 -3 sentences, Stepladder writes 2 pages. So, in the right context, imagination and creativity are seen as a positive.
.A little later in the conversation, though, there was a clear indicator that imagination is problematic: when Stepladder has problems with her friends, she will go and play with her imaginary friends instead. Now, personally, I think this is an okay coping mechanism. Stepladder says “The good thing about imaginary friends is that they always want to play what I want to play.” Unlike Calvin, she doesn’t fight with them, although there have been occasions when they have been recalcitrant.
The teachers don’t really see it that way. She “really needs to learn to deal with other children and work out compromises with them.” Likewise, when she is bored in class, Stepladder will just wander away into Cloudland, or some other imaginary place, rather than sucking it up and learning about life in a fishing village in Newfoundland, or whatever. They don’t seem to understand that like freckles, or athletic ability, imagination is not something that children can turn off when it isn’t convenient. I mean, you can encourage a kid to be less imaginative overall, but I really doubt if you can channel creativity and imagination as rigidly as teachers and parents seem to want to.
I know this article in The Onion is satirical, but I think it contains a grain of truth, in that it is pointing out the emphasis many parents place on practicality over imagination. It really isn’t that far from The Onion’s satire to this article.
I do hear compliments on Stepladder’s imagination, don’t get me wrong. Her Violin Teacher is delighted with the way she picks up on metaphors and stories and description the violin teacher uses those techniques to explain the music. “Some kids really don’t get it,” Violin Teacher says. But rejoicing in the fact that she gets it involves a trade-off. Violin Teacher has to listen to Stepladder expand on those imaginative ideas for a minute or two.
Miss Lilly, her ballet teacher, also waxes lyrical about Stepladder’s imagination. You see ballet, it turns out, requires an ability to express imagination physically through mime. This is Stepladder’s fourth year of ballet, and the first year she did a RAD exam. The exam includes a mime component, and it is interesting to me to watch the other girls (I know, I should say “children”, but come on, this is ballet for 6-year-olds; it is totally girl-centric), many of whom have trouble with the idea of miming “A Day at the Seaside”. Stepladder has no problems, she meets a mermaid, finds a seashell to listen to, swims, builds a sandcastle, or any of a dozen other things. Many of the others stand fairly stiffly until Miss Lilly suggests things things they might do. Thereafter, they repeat the same actions in sequence, looking at each other for confirmation, “Is this right?” Stepladder never does the same thing twice.
There is one little girl, Ivy, who really has trouble figuring out what she is supposed to do. Ivy’s mom gives me a typical enough backhanded compliment on Stepladder’s imagination, calling her a “free sprit”. Seriously, what is this supposed to mean? Flaky? And she asks what I am doing to develop Stepladder’s imagination. At the time, I was at a loss, because I really don’t think actively about it. Actually, what I tend to do is manipulate the imaginative life for my own ends. E.g:
We are walking to school, and Stepladder is giving me grief because we are running a little late (which means “on time, as SL likes to get to school a bit early in order to play on the monkey bars and gossip”):
SL: You know I like to get to school early.
Me: Well, we are running late because you took a long time to get ready, and you were slow.
SL: That wasn’t my fault. My imaginary friends made me late because we were playing a game.
(I paused a momement here to think about my response, I admit.)
Me: Well, who is the boss of them?
Me: So, you are their boss. That means if they are doing naughty things, you have to take responsibility. You can’t blame them for being late, because you should tell them you need to go. They should respect that.
Me: Okay what?
SL: I am sorry for being slow and making us late.
I guess the thing here is that I work within her imaginative universe.
When the ballet lesson is over, the girls come out, and Ivy and Stepladder are chatting about horses. Stepladder is hoping that her godmother will take her horseriding. “Of course,” she says, “what I really want to do is catch my very own unicorn. What you need to do is go in to the forest, and when you see one, you have to sit very still, and then the unicorn will come to you, and put its head in your lap, and you can pat it, and tell it you love it, and you can make a rein with one of your hairs, and then it will be your friend forever.” Ivy is overwhelmed by the detail in this description and Stepladder’s earnestness. She turns to her mother and asks “is that true?”
Now, here I think Ivy’s mother had some choices, and I know what mine would have been, but she said “No, Ivy. A unicorn is a fantasy animal.” Stepladder was fully prepared to argue the point, but we had to rush off to meet the Feckless One at the Farmer’s Market. But here is my point – Ivy’s mother, while ostensibly admiring Stepladder’s imaginative ability, immediately moved to crush it in her own kid. I don’t think that is the fault of the electronic media, but rather of a failure of imagination.