The words fantasy and parenting don’t often appear in the same sentence. Fantasy is frequently seen as a frivolous literary genre used as a means to escape reality. And while we know that stories of dragons, ogres, and magic may be fun, we don’t think of them as being anything more than amusing distractions. However, fantasy can serve as an unlikely parenting tool that can teach life lessons, serve as a coping strategy, and even foster creativity in children.
I experienced the power of fantasy first hand when my oldest son was learning how to write. Sitting down and completing a page of practice letters was a battle that always ended with him in tears. I tried various gadgets to no avail – slant boards, grips, triangular and chubby pencils. I even had him evaluated by an occupational therapist.
Physically, there was nothing preventing my son from writing letters. He simply didn’t like the fact that it took him a long time. This had been a pattern with my child since before he could speak. If something didn’t come easily to him, he’d avoid it at all costs rather than put in the effort to cultivate the skill.
Then I had one of those genius parenting moments. Instead of nagging him to write letters we talked about Batman. My son loves Batman and many other comic book characters. Talking about Batman – a topic that was far from handwriting – lead to a discussion about perseverance and hard work. I pointed out to my son that Batman wasn’t born a superhero: He trained to become one. Suddenly this concept of working hard and not always succeeding right away clicked. And I was shocked by how quickly his handwriting improved. In short, a fantasy hero helped my son learn to write.
Humans have always used stories as way of communicating deep truths. Every culture has a tradition of storytelling to pass down history, morality, and important societal lessons to the next generation. For example, the ancient Greek plays that contained fantastic tales of gods and demi-gods were more than just entertainment. They were used to impart wisdom to the audience so that they could be responsible citizens in the Athenian democracy.
Fairy tales and fables were also used to convey lessons. Whether it’s kindness, bravery, or being wary of strangers, these clever tales helped children understand abstract concepts and often highlighted the reality of good and evil in the world. It seems our ancestors also figured out that telling a fantastic tale got the point across better than simply telling a child what to do.
Fantasy author Lloyd Alexander said, “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” Fantasy provides a safe way to explore issues children may not want to delve into in real life. Many fantasy characters are flawed and therefore relatable. They struggle with the same things we deal with – love, loss, even dysfunctional families. To see a fantasy character navigate a tricky situation and succeed despite all odds can be inspiring. Think of Harry Potter who dealt with loss and a less than ideal home life or Percy Jackson who struggled with a learning disability. These characters can inspire children dealing with similar issues.
Finally, fantasy has been credited with promoting creative thinking in children. Studies have found engaging in fantasy play has been correlated with high levels of creativity. Envisioning a world completely unlike your own and navigating sometimes improbable circumstances, challenges individuals to think outside the box and see problems in a different light.
And children are already naturals at it. They naturally fill in gaps in their knowledge with fantasy. That’s how a strange noise in a dark bedroom turns into a monster hiding under the bed.
Fantasy is an unlikely but powerful parenting tool because it engages a child’s attention and imagination simultaneously. Thus, it can impart lessons that would be difficult to convey otherwise. And, best of all, by reading or watching fantasy with your child, you can both have fun in the process.