We’ve been watching a lot of family movies over our extended winter break, and my children have questions.
Regarding “Home Alone”: Do the robbers really get their hair scorched off? Do they really step on a nail? Do they really get shot with a BB gun? And “Star Wars”: Are the rebels really flying ships? Do the Jedi really lift things with their minds?
You see the theme: Our kids, ages 8 and 4, are still wrapping their minds around the idea of fiction. They’re OK when it comes to animation in imaginary worlds (a majority of their viewing), but when it comes to live action, they have trouble navigating drama vs. reality.
No, we tell them over and over (and over) during the movie: No one actually got hurt while they were making “Home Alone.” The kids who play Kevin’s brothers and sisters are not his siblings in real life. The people who play his parents are not his real parents. And no, they are not actually on a plane, nor is it actually taking them to France.
“I think I know what happened,” says Nate, 8. “When they made the movie, probably one adult stayed with Kevin so that he wasn’t really all alone.”
So we talk about what an actor is, what a set is, and props and stage makeup. And stunt doubles, who are crucial to a film built on the premise that it’s hilarious to watch adults get beaten up by a kid. (It is!)
Getting ready for bed, my youngest son, Harvey, 4, pops his head in my room. “Are monsters real?” he asks. “No,” I say. “Yay,” he replies, and leaves.
A few seconds later, he pops back in. “Ghosts?” “No.” “Thanks.” He walks out, only to return. “Bats?”
“Yes, bats are real,” I tell him. “Oh, man!” he says. His luck has run out.
When my kids first started asking if things like dragons and unicorns and magic are real, I said no without thinking about it. Later I wondered if I had made a mistake, if I was supposed to be nurturing a childhood belief in magical beings. I have no regrets telling them that monsters and ghosts aren’t real — no sane parent wants to give their kids nightmares. But should I be encouraging them to believe in fairies? What is a fairy, anyway?
There’s a wooded area in a nearby state park that has become a children’s fairy village. Over the years, children have constructed charming little houses out of rocks and sticks and moss that are meant to be fairies’ homes. Some of them are incredibly intricate, with small staircases and rooms and tables and chairs. Building homes for fairies is a childhood pursuit that’s very on trend, one of the innocent, imaginative and outdoorsy kinds of activities promoted in certain educational circles influenced by Waldorf and forest schools. At the fairy village, my kids want to build their own fairy houses; they happily collect acorns and pieces of bark and handfuls of grass and start in.
But when they ask me, “What are fairies?” I don’t know what to say. Have I skipped over an important stage of childhood development that involves believing in magic? “A magical creature that people believe lives in the trees” is the best definition I can come up with.
Another parent told me that in her home, she talks about all kinds of fairies, like clean-up fairies and food fairies. We don’t have those, but my children do believe in one fairy: the tooth fairy. And despite all I have done, intentionally or not, to quash their interest in fantasy, they fully believe in her. Nate says the tooth fairy is the one magic thing that’s true. They ask me how she knows when children have lost their teeth and how she travels all around the world to give them money. I shrug my shoulders, and they make up stories to explain the gaps.
A few days ago, my husband started talking to the kids about magic, and we ended up watching videos of the late card magician Ricky Jay doing tricks. We were all slack-jawed as he turned one card into another, popped a specific card out of the deck and dealt himself winning blackjack hands over and over. Ricky Jay doesn’t pretend that he’s doing “magic” — in fact, he talks throughout about how he uses his memory and hand control to do his tricks. But what he does is so astounding that it seems like magic all the same.
Of course, Nate and Harvey started working on card tricks that afternoon. Their technique was a little transparent. But given a little time, maybe they’ll be the ones creating an illusion for everyone else.