It is amazing how creative, imaginative and magnificently wonderful the mind of a child is. Children believe in the fantastic and the surreal and the all-around awesome that rational adult thinkers brush off as fiction. Think back to the days when you were a child. Can you remember some of the things that you accepted as truth without contest and how much richer your life was for it?
When I was a girl, I believed that I could become invisible at will. The secret was baby powder. I’d dust my face with powder and begin to run around my house antagonizing my older sister with the belief that I could not be seen. When she’d say “Stop it,” or “Leave me alone!,” I’d laugh hysterically and just yell out, “You can’t see me—I’m invisible!”
I also believed that I could fly. Not in the way that R. Kelly was saying, but for real. In all of my dreams where flying took place, and there were lots, instead of flapping my arms like wings or extending them straight out in front of me, I flew precisely the way I would swim. With long strokes, I’d extend one arm out in front and gracefully bring it back toward me and repeat that motion with the other arm, only I’d be in the air. The faster my strokes, the faster I’d fly. I flew so often in dreams that I really thought that flying was one of my natural abilities. I believed that if I were ever in danger, I could simply fly away. Luckily for me, I was never in a situation that caused me to test that belief. And also fortunately for me, I learned well before adulthood that I could neither fly nor become invisible.
But what happens when you believe something as a child, that you never learn is untrue?
I remember listening to an episode of NPR’s “This American Life” that aired years ago called “A Little Bit of Knowledge.” The segment discusses exactly this scenario. There is a guy that recalls that he was about 11 or 12 when he first heard the term Nielsen family from a group of adults he overheard talking. From the conversation, he gathered that networks consulted with Nielsen families to see how popular a television show was, but he wondered why they only asked families named Nielsen. He came up with his own answers and assumed that the networks had done research and found that it was a common name and that it cut across class and economic lines. Perhaps, he thought, families with the name Nielsen were an accurate sample size. He said he didn’t think about it again, except from time to time when he’d wonder why T.V. continued to use such a primitive way to collect data. He then went on to say that years later as an adult, one of his friends mentioned that her friend’s family had been asked to become a Nielsen family. He asked, “Isn’t it funny how all of them are named Nielsen?” A long silence ensued and he realized that they are, of course, not all named Nielsen. He was 34 years old at the time.
There was also a woman who spoke of how she believed in unicorns as a child. She said that in her mind there wasn’t much difference between a zebra and a unicorn and that whenever she thought of them, they were in a grassy plain in Africa drinking from a watering hole with the wildebeest and impalas. Fast forward years later, she was at a party and about seven people were standing around a keg talking. Randomly, the topic of endangered species came up and she asked, “Is the unicorn endangered or extinct?” She said that there was a long period of silence, then everyone laughed, and then the laughter was followed by another gap of silence when they all realized she wasn’t laughing. She realized for the first time that unicorns are indeed unreal, and to think so as a grown woman came off as kind of pathetic.
I could not imagine being in either of these situations. How embarrassed they both must have felt. I believed in some pretty interesting things as a kid and I’m grateful, mostly, that I shed those beliefs when I became an adult. A child’s mind is certainly an amazing thing and the things that children come up with are usually quite extravagant, all the more reason why seeing them as fact into adulthood can be hard to live down if/when your friends and family find out…
What did you believe as a child and do you have any stories of finding out late in life that what you’d believed all along was false? If so, we’d love to hear them.
Sheena Bryant is a writer and blogger in Chicago. Follow her on twitter at @song_of_herself.
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