The psychology of magic in childhood

Is a little magic a good thing?

magicKids should have magic in their lives. The tooth fairy, Santa Claus, Imaginary friends, the Elf-on-the-shelf (although to be honest, that last US inspired tradition weirds me out a little, so we are skipping it!) are all day to day parts of our children’s reality. But is magic for children a ‘good’ thing or a morally dubious waste of time? And what do psychologists who have studied it argue?

Santa and yummy carrots

My daughter lives in a confusing world. Some things, her Mum, her sandbox, breakfast, demonstrably exist. Others (a certain young pig with a penchant for muddy puddles, carrots which taste preferable to bread) she is pretty sure do not exist, but she hears and sees a lot. In the middle are a bunch of other things like fairies and Santa. She never see these, but boy she is sure there are their! What I find amazing about this is that she seems to take this all in her stride….

Truth and kiddie-horror?

One argument ‘against’ is that fantasy and magic blurs the lines between lying and telling the truth. I must admit to feeling a slight unease when using the tooth fairy to provide a good reason for cleaning teeth. But I also told my daughter that the tiny piece of carrot she consumed would give her big muscles, which I am pretty sure is only vaguely true, but also a ‘good thing’. For me, it seems as if going along with your child’s imagination (and even encouraging it) is worth the joy it brings. Where it gets more dubious is when they get older and you try and ‘convince’ them to extend that phase of their lives for you own benefit.

Neither is magic all jolly men giving presents. This ability to buy into magic, combined with imagination and a constant attempt to understand the world can lead to slightly darker fantasies. Currently my daughter claims that, at night, someone is walking on the roof wearing socks. Having a crazily steep roof and having recently been in the loft I am pretty sure there is no-one up there. But, the mundane explanation that it is pigeons jumping about doesn’t seem to sway my daughter much. If I believed someone was walking on the roof, I would be pretty terrified! Mind you, as a ‘grown up’ and a parent I worry about all sorts of improbable things happening to my kids now and the in the future – so maybe things don’t change so much.

The science and cognition of magic.

Once I started looking into it, I found quite a literature on the effects of ‘magic’ on our children’s’ development. Reality is pretty fluid for young children. For instance, some research suggests that 70% children aged around 3 believed in Santa, whilst only 78% believed in bin-men. By 5 years, kids are pretty sure about the bin-man, and a whopping 83% believed in Santa. Why is this? The research team behind this work1 argue it is a lot to do with reasoning skills. When children are very young (e.g. ~3) they basically place a lot of trust in what we say (understandably,as we basically keep them alive!). As they age (between 3-7) they also begin using the evidence around them to reason about (and understand) the world. Santa leaves a bunch of clues (presents, guest appearances in shopping centers, coca-cola ads) which support his existence. Young children use these relatively uncritically. Indeed, experimental evidence shows that you can increase children’s belief in fantasy characters when they are in the earlier reasoning stage by providing such clues2. As kids get older (i.e. from about 9), they realize these bit of evidence don’t stack up about with other things which they know to be true (i.e. deer don’t fly) levels of belief drop off.

Magic and imagination

That’s the psychological process, but what are the effects? As you can see, magical belief is a form of reasoning, a skill children need to develop to function in the world. But it also has a number of other effects. Key of these is the link between magical belief and building a productive imagination.

Imagination is important for so many reasons. For young children it allows them to build and explore mental models about the world and understand and resolve conflicts. Children with better imaginations are also more able to take others people’s perspectives (a vital social skill). Having an imaginary friend has also been shown to be a way that children can cope with stressful events in their lives3. More generally, when they grow up, a strong imagination is vital in all industries which require creativity in design or problem solving. Basically, it’s a vital component of growing up, and an important one once we are there!

Everyday magic

One thing which has occurred to me in recent weeks is that magic should be an everyday thing for all of us. My daughter currently has a make-believe game called ‘bookings’ which involves setting up an elaborate shop, and having us pay pretend money for bizarre events. More than half the time she tells us there are no spaces left, so clearly she has an in-demand set of events. It’s a little repetitive for grown-ups, but the time I spend playing it with her is, I suspect, more meaningful (and magical!) to her than a trip to the zoo or a new toy. I also thing they are the little magic moments in my parenting experience that I will treasure the most as well when they are over. And do you know what? I think that is exactly as it should be.

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  1. Woolley, J. D., Cornelius, C., & Lacy, W. (2011). Developmental changes in the use of supernatural explanations for unusual events. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11, 311-337. Also: Woolley, J. D., Cornelius, C., & Lacy, W. (2011). Developmental changes in the use of supernatural explanations for unusual events. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11, 311-337. 
  2. Woolley, J. D., Boerger, E. A., & Markman, A. B. (2004). A visit from the Candy Witch: Factors influencing young children’s belief in a novel fantastical being. Developmental science, 7(4), 456-468. 
  3. Taylor, M. (2001). Imaginary companions and the children who create them. Oxford University Press. 

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