You enjoy your toddler's imagination, but only when she knows it's pretend.

How to Teach Your Toddler the Difference Between Real and Imaginary

by Freddie Silver

Toddlers have great imaginations. On the one hand, this means they can entertain themselves with an imaginary friend; on the other hand, they might have difficulty getting over a nightmare that felt real or figuring out what is not real on TV. While it's fun for parents to regress and join in their toddlers' imaginary play, there are times when your little one needs to know the difference between real and imaginary. You'll especially want to be sure she can make that distinction when your angelic little sweetie starts telling fibs.

Watch TV together with your toddler. Don't miss an opportunity to point out something that's fantasy. For example, you can ask your little one, "Can doggies really talk?"

Give your child an easy vocabulary to label the difference between real and imaginary. Use the words "pretend" or "make-believe" -- which are easier for your toddler to say and remember -- instead of "imaginary"

Explain that the fighting your toddler sees on TV is only pretend. Tell him about the consequences of real violence, how it's dangerous and that it hurts. It would be best if he didn't see violence on TV at all, but with older siblings in your house, that might not always be possible. Be prepared to talk with him about what he has seen.

Explain to your toddler how the animated creatures she sees on TV are created. Tell her how people draw the cartoon characters just the way she draws with crayons in her coloring book.

Get your toddler a puppet and show her how to make funny voices to bring the puppet to life. Remind her that's how it's done on TV and that these characters are only make-believe, not real.

Make sure your toddler doesn't spend too much time watching TV, where it's difficult for him to determine what's real. According to the Center for Media Literacy, youngsters need opportunities to entertain themselves and engage in imaginary play where they can work through their fears and fantasies.

Play some "let's pretend" games. Little ones love it when you pretend to be the baby and they pretend to be the grown-up. And you're likely to get a good laugh when you recognize some of your favorite expressions being mimicked by your precocious youngster.

Decide how to handle the imaginary monster in your toddler's closet. Remember that if you pretend to talk to the monster or chase him out of the room, you'll be blurring the line between real and imaginary. Consider checking the closet and telling your little one firmly that there's no monster in there. Use the opportunity to remind her that monsters are only pretend, so they can't be in her closet.

Remember that most youngsters tell fibs because they have a hard time knowing what's fantasy and what's not. But when your toddler starts being untruthful with you to get out of trouble after she's done something wrong, you need to respond firmly. Tell her it's wrong to tell a lie and give her some time out so she'll learn that lying won't help her avoid punishments.

Remember that your toddler's imaginary friend serves a purpose for him, whether it's working through feelings of jealousy over a new baby or just plain boredom. Keep his fantasy going by offering his imaginary friend juice and cookies, but serve cardboard cookies and an empty cup and point out to your little one that it's pretend food for his pretend friend.

Realize that, despite your best efforts, your toddler won't fully appreciate the difference between real and imaginary until after she turns 5. Expect some regression in her understanding even after she seems to get it.

About the Author

Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.

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