Drawing the Line Between Pretend Play and Reality

One of my daughters LOVES to pretend, which I think is fantastic…most of the time. I love that she involves her sister in her games of school, gymnastics, and hospital, and that she is exercising her creativity and imagination. However, sometimes her pretend play causes problems in the reality of our daily life, and I’m looking for some suggestions on how to ease the frustration that we are currently experiencing. The scenario is usually this: It’s a Sunday morning, and my daughter has been playing “emergency room” with her little sister. She has improvised casts on her leg and arm, and a bandage tied around her head. I tell the girls that it’s time to get ready for church, and my daughter asks whether she can keep her casts on for church. (By the way, I think she is old enough and smart enough to know that the answer is going to be “no.”) When I tell her that she may not, but that she may resume her game after church, crying and stomping ensue. She is clearly very frustrated, says that she really does have a broken ankle, and is emphatic that she cannot go to church (or wherever we are going) because of her injuries.

What do you do in situations like these? Any suggestion that she is just pretending puts her over the edge, even when there is plenty of time for her to transition from play to reality, and it is difficult for the whole family. This situation also happens at bedtime – “no mom, I need to finish my math homework!” (she’s too young for homework) – and at other times of transition. If you have a similarly imaginative and dramatic child, I would love to hear your wisdom! How do you help your children to make the mental shift from pretend play to reality? Part of me wonders if it would help for me to enter her pretend play world for a few minutes before I am going to ask her to make a transition, so that I am helping her to make a change from within rather than imposing a change from without. What have you done that has worked?

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  • Kathy

    When it comes to things like attending church, school and other required and important things to attend – it seems that the standard my parents and my in-laws used still works well- “if you are too sick to go to Church (or fill in with other important event)- you are to sick to do anything else.” The girls know taht this would result in all day in bed – no tv, outings, etc. This has worked so far. We will also use the “Jesus, Mary, God the Father and the Holy Spirit and all the other people in Heaven are looking forward to having you over their House. Sunday morning is our PRAY date at God’s House”.

    I realize that some may read these statements and have points to contend with – but – it has worked for us. Also we attend the 9AM Mass so it leaves little time in the morning to play before church as we are getting ready.

    Hope this helps.

  • Molly

    I think entering the pretend world will help. It shows her that you take her play seriously, and it will probably shock her a bit into complying. My very imaginative daughter loves it when I join in, and, as a teacher, joining with my very imaginative (read nutty) 7th graders was often the only way to get them back to reality. I think they love that you, a grown-up, has acknowledged and participated in their fun and it makes them willing to participate in the activities you have planned.

  • I have found that I can get my most imaginative child to do anything if I play along with the pretend, so I’d try — Doctor, there is an emergency at the parish, we need you to dress in your church clothes and get right in the ambulance so we can get over there. As Molly said, I think that partially it shocks them into compliance, and I also think that it stops it from feeling like a battle.

    I read somewhere that kids need an opportunity to save face, that is why sometimes it is helpful to give choices, but I have also found that I need to know that my kids will comply when I ask it without a choice, especially when we are in a hurry.

    Also, we have a very active dress up life in our house, but I have a rule that dress ups can’t go out of the house or to meals, so if you were interested in a more punitive approach, you could try “I gave you a five minute warning and then asked you to clean up. I see that you are not able to be obedient when you are playing in that way, therefore, you won’t have that toy for the rest of this week.”

  • We had that problem with our oldest. He still pretend plays all the time at age 8, but he’s more apt to stop when I tell him to. When I saw the imaginative play becoming problematic in certain places like Mass or parking lots, where they wouldn’t pay attention to traffic, I just made a steadfast rule that no pretend play is allowed then. I made sure that all of the kids understood me and they had consequences without warning if they disobeyed. This was mostly for the parking lot play which was an issue for a while.
    I also agree with the others that sometimes it’s easiest to go into their world and make Mass part of the pretend play.

  • JMB

    I don’t remember if my children did stuff like that (I’m sure they did), but my first instinct would be to ignore the “pretend” play and get on with reality. I think you handled it fine and I wouldn’t second guess yourself. Having an imagination is wonderful, but so is being obedient and respectful. There is also a time and place for play and a time and place for school and Mass. I think the earlier children learn how to make those distinctions and transitions, the better off they are in long run.

  • Mary

    Yes, I think your instincts are absolutely right! I think joining in her imaginative play and then setting a clear endpoint (“five more minutes and then we have to finish our game and get ready for church”) would help. Parenting is most effective when we model the behaviour we desire them to follow. There is really no substitute for getting in there and doing with your child what you want them to do (in this case, make the transition from imagination to reality). It is hard being a child – it is not easy to learn how to do things and how to manage our emotions unless our parents enter our reality and show us the way through. It is time-consuming, but will reap rewards! I wouldn’t encourage a blurring of the boundary between imagination and reality. The beauty of the imagination is that we know it is a different world and that we can step into and out of it at any moment! There is freedom in that knowledge and I think your daughter will be happier when she realises she can make that choice, as you can.

  • Kathy

    Question Katrina – is your daughter who likes to pretend to be an ER doctor the same child who was so interested in the medical equipment in the photo when Annie was born? If it is – sounds like you have a real future doctor on your hands.

  • 🙂 Yes, Kathy, that is the same daughter!