“My dad was eaten by a whale”, “At school, I flew away with my unicorn”, “I live on the Moon”… Told in the most confident tone, how many tall tales have been shared in playgrounds or around sandpits? Disregarding all likelihood, the children fantasize. Some are masters in the art of telling cracks much bigger than them. The adults, half-amused, half-perplexed, ask themselves: should this be seen as a clumsy lie or a game? A clever mix of fantasy and a taste for stories or a desire to test the limits of true and false?
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This great childhood classic, these canards of always, does it fulfill a particular function in toddlers? In any case, they do not constitute a first step towards lying. Lying presupposes understanding that others do not think like us and that we can act on their belief. In other words, “What’s in my head is not in other people’s heads” and that we can derive a form of profit from it, continues Professor Bernard Golse, child psychiatrist at the Necker hospital in Paris.
Lying therefore corresponds to a particular stage in the development of children, around the age of 7, and which Louise, 14, remembers: “In elementary school, I talked nonsense. For example, I promised all my friends invitations to the wedding of Emma Watson, the actress of Harry Potter, because I had imagined that she was going to marry an actor who bears the same name as me and whom I had convinced myself was my cousin. At the time, I ended up believing it. »
The border between the real and the unreal is porous
Around 4-5 years, it is something else. The child lives in a world where the boundary between the real and the unreal is porous. “The very young child can therefore say something made up thinking that it is true, because this imaginary story contains part of his perception of the world”, analyzes Bernard Golse.
say for example “I live on the moon” returns like this “to the fantasy of being alone”. To say “my father was born in a whale” reflects “the image of childbirth that the child constructs”, explains the doctor: “For the child, it is much more important than reality. This is not a lie but a fantasy truth. » The child can completely believe in these improbable stories. These fabrications are an open door to his psyche, to his imagination.
Canards of all kinds also have another very specific role: that of pleasing the child and making him laugh. “They have fun with the good trick they do on adults”, according to Bernard Golse. These confabulations therefore act as a kind of emotional comforter and would not be, basically, so far from the daydreams of adults, according to the psychologist Héloïse Junier.
“Obviously, no adult is going to say such nonsense out loud. But his brain also has other abilities than those of rationalizing and thinking. He can project himself elsewhere, in a situation that pleases the individual more and helps him to feel good. » Throughout life, the human brain can thus deceive itself and believe, in part, the stories it invents. He even needs it. “These daydreams have a soothing function of emotional regulation and are widely used in certain therapies, such as EMDR (1) or sophrology, continues the psychologist. The fact of imagining yourself on the beach with your feet in the water helps to unload cortisol and release the well-being hormones well known to caregivers, for example. »
A multiplied projection capacity
Unlike adults, children have this increased capacity for projection because they live in a very powerful imagination. “Where we have built highways of constructed reasoning and have become rational, the child has a completely abundant neural functioning. His brain is a maze of small roads where all intersections are possible. exhibits Héloïse Junier. Suddenly, his imagination is unbridled and without limits.
“Children’s relationship to reality is different from that of adults because their imagination is much more fertile”, confirms Professor Bernard Granger, psychiatrist at Cochin Hospital in Paris. According to him, much of this unbridled creativity is stimulated by the adults themselves, who love this part of childhood innocence. In each family, moreover, these finds of the smallest are remembered for many years. Thus, Sébastien, 44, is regularly reminded that he had said without batting an eyelid to his elementary school teacher that his father had gone on a trip around the world. While this one had appeared at the school gate the same evening.
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“The adult plays a role in the making of these fables, adds Bernard Granger. By making believe in Santa Claus, he somehow encourages the child to admit that extravagant events are possible. » In the same way, he reads tales to her, stories where the trees speak, where the fairies change a young girl into a princess with the wave of a magic wand and where a cat, wearing seven league boots, travels the world… Confabling would therefore be the logical continuation of the tale, and the privilege of childhood in a way, a right to take off from reality to the applause of adults.
Some stages of the child’s imagination
From 2 to 6 years old, the imagination of toddlers is prolific.
Around 2-3 years old, magical thinking dominates. At this stage of development, the child, then very egocentric, projects feelings and intentions onto objects and animals.
Between 5 and 8 years old, the child enters the “age of reason”. According to the “theory of the mind”, a concept developed by cognitive science specialists, he is then able to decenter himself and understand that not everyone thinks like him.
To read : The Baby, from the feeling of being to the feeling of existingBernard Golse, “1001 babies” collection, Erès, 2021, 184 p., €12.