Young children know how to go to Magic Kingdoms without paying for tickets, because they are at home in the imagination and live close to their dreams. When she was very young, my daughter Sophie had adventures in a special place called Teddy Bear Land, where she met a special friend. I loved hearing about these travels, and encouraged her to make drawings and spin further stories from them.
One day Sophie sat down beside me and asked with great earnestness, “Daddy, would you like to know how I get to Teddy Bear Land?”
“I’d love to.”
“Sometimes I take the Sun Gate. Sometimes I take the Moon Gate. Sometimes I take the Tree Gate. Sometimes I take the Rainbow Bridge. And sometimes I just punch a hole in the world.”
I’ve never heard anyone say it better. To live the larger life. we need to punch a hole in the world. This is what dreaming – sleeping or waking or hyper-awake – is really all about. On our roads to adulthood, we sometimes forget how to do it, just as older children in the Chronicles of Narnia cease to be able to see Aslan as they approach adolescence and become more and more burdened by the reality definitions of the grown-ups around them.
When we listen, truly listen, to very young children, we start to remember that the distance between us and the Magic Kingdoms is no wider than the edge of a sleep mask. True listening requires us to pay attention; to attend, in its root meaning in the Latin, is to stretch ourselves, which requires us to expand our vocabulary of understanding. We owe nothing less to the young children in our lives. When we do this, we discover that they can be our very best teachers on how to dream and what dreaming can be.
Here’s what we need to know about listening to children’s dreams and supporting their imaginations:
1. Listen up!
When a child wants to tell a dream, make room for that. Make some daily space for dream sharing. Listen to the stories and cherish them for their own sake.
2. Invite good dreams Pick the right bedtime reading or better still, tell stories. Help your child to weave a web of good dream intentions for the night – for example, by asking “What would you most like to do tonight?” Encourage children to sleep with a favorite stuffed animal (whether teddy bear or T-Rex) and make this a dream guardian.
3. Provide immediate help with the scary stuff If your child was scared by something in the night, recognize you are the ally the child needs right now. Do something right away to move out that negative energy. Get a frightened child to spit it out (literally) or draw a picture of what scared her and tear it up as violently as possible.
4. Ask good questions. When the child has told her story, ask good questions. Ask about feelings, about the color of the sky, and about exactly what T-Rex was doing. See if there’s something about the future. Say what you would think about this if this were your dream. Always come up with something fun or helpful to do with this story. Open up the crayon box, call grandma, etc.
5. Help the child to keep a dream journal. Get this started as early as possible. With a very young child, you can help with the words while they do the pictures. When your child reaches the point where she closes the journal and says, “This is my secret book and you can’t read it any more” do not peek. Give her privacy, and let her choose when she’ll let you
look in that magic book.
6. Provide tools for creative expression. Encourage the child to bring dreams come alive through art, dance, theater and games, and to draw or paint dreams. Gather friends and family for dream-inspired games and performance. Puppets and stuffed animals
can be great for acting out dreams. This can also be dress-up time. It’s such a release for kids to portray mom or dad or other grown-ups in their lives – be ready to be shocked!
7. Help construct effective action plans Dreams can show us things that require further action – for example, to avoid an unhappy future event that was previewed in the dream, or to put something right in a family situation. A child will probably need adult help with such things, starting with your help.may require adult help, starting with yours. This will eventually require you to learn more about dreaming and dreamwork (hint: you can start with my books).
8. Let your own inner child out to play As you listen to children’s dreams, let the wonderful child dreamer inside you come out and join in the play.
9. Keep it fun! When you get the hang of this, you’ll find it’s about the best home entertainment you can enjoy.
Notice two things that are not on this list, but would be at the very top of a list of what NOT to do with your children’s dreams:
1. NEVER say to a child “It’s only a dream”. Children know that dreams are for real and that scary stuff that comes out in dreams needs to be resolved, not dismissed.
2. DON’T INTERPRET a child’s dreams.You are not the expert here; the child is.
For more on helping children with their dreams and nurturing their imaginations, please read the first chapter of my book Active Dreaming.