Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Magic Years

This post first appeared as a column in Practical Parenting Magazine, April 2011. Sorry for the confusion, I'm a little behind. And a-big in front! I'm here all week, try the fish, etc.

Pre-schoolers don’t inhabit the same world as adults. Have you noticed? Not just because they see everything at half height and have that enviable lifestyle where Parent Servants anticipate and fulfil their every need. But more importantly, because they live in a world of magical possibility, where grown-up rules of reality, logic and social behaviour don’t apply. In developmental psychology, this age is called The Magic Years, and when you are a stay-at-home parent, you spend a lot of time in this psychedelic wonderland.

Through the eyes of a small child, nothing is too outlandish to be possible. Bunnies bearing chocolate? Flying reindeers? Fairies that trade teeth for cash in the dead of night? To a child, these are no more outrageous than play-back tape recorders, or drive-through hot chips, or hair-drying machines that can blow hot air right at your face!

Little-person life is enchanting. Four-year-old Peanut lives a rich fantasy life in which she can inhabit a dozen characters before breakfast and T-Bone, at two, is just starting to enter the world of make-believe. Last week he began insisting that he was addressed as Trixie-Jeff. This would have been fine except that T-Bone is the most agreeable of children, while his alter-ego Trixie-Jeff was a demanding, obstreperous diva. No matter the question, T-Bone would answer ‘No! But I Trixie-Jeff! But no!’ (And once, memorably: ‘No! But I Trixie-Jeff! And I dot a fruity poo-bum!’)

I love this free-ranging imaginary world. Sometimes, however, I’ve found that it’s important to establish the line between fantasy and reality. Last Christmas, for instance, Peanut became obsessed with genies. She might have been confusing them with Jesus - it was the season - but we explored it anyway.

'What do genies do exactly, Mum?' she insisted. 'Well,’ I said, ‘they live in old tea-pots and if you rub the pot gently they come out and grant you three wishes.' Peanut’s face took on the familiar fervour of intense pre-school passion. It was as if Luke Skywalker and the Wiggles had delivered her to the Jurassic period on a giant blueberry. 'Here are my grant-wishes, Mum', she cried joyfully. 'A walking apple, a baby made just for kids, and a pineapple pie.'

She hounded me to the kitchen to search for teapots. I found two, and we sat on the floor and rubbed the first one. 'Genie, genie, talk to me,' I droned. 'Grant me wishes: one, two, three!' Ivy threw open the lid and looked inside. 'Not today,' I said.

T-Bone did the next one. 'Genie, genie, what you do, wake up!' he sang. Ivy looked inside that lid too, desperately, and finding it empty, her little heart broke. 'Oh no!' she wailed as she threw herself on the rug and sobbed with the painful realisation that no pineapple pies or pet babies were forthcoming. 'Peanut, honey, genies aren't real,' I said. 'They just live in books and in games. But they are still wonderful.'

The sweet, fleeting magic years hold a special charm for parents too, as we see life through the pre-schoolers prism of magical possibility. As my little ones grow up, their worlds will widen, Santa will be outed, the Tooth Fairy debunked, and life will be, sadly, a little more realistic. A world without bunnies bearing chocolate? Not for a few more years, I hope.

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Thanks for talking to me. I don't got cooties. Oh, except for when I got cooties.