My son’s birthday party was last weekend. He was beyond excited because he’d been waiting for quite a while. He turned nine in July. I’m a little behind.
He’s taking this, his ninth year, seriously. He’s planning on cramming all kinds of remarkable experiences and achievements into the next ten months. The clock is ticking, you see, and he has a childhood bucket list to get through before his next birthday. Evidently, turning ten, reaching double-digits, is some kind of terminal destination.
I was elated to turn ten. It felt like a major milestone on my sprint toward adulthood. An only child, surrounded only by adults, I was eager to slough off childish things and join the only party in town. My son, Grey, on the other hand, not so much. In fact, as he’s unwillingly propelled forward on the conveyor belt toward Gate A for adolescence, he seems to be doing everything he can to get off, or at least, jam up the gears. He’s taken up collecting stuffed animals. He tries to climb into my lap anytime I sit down. He’s well… regressing. I’d be alarmed by this mysterious behavior but for one thing: It’s not mysterious. He has told me in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to grow up, because, evidently, the moment you turn ten you lose all of your imagination.
I know, right? My first instinct was to put the smackdown on this kind of thinking. Trot out all the evidence to the contrary: the adult artists, game-makers, inventors, musicians, writers, actors, me for Christ’s sake. I wanted to say, “What about ME????”
But then I remembered that my son is smarter than I am. I remembered that, usually, if I give my brain enough time to catch up with his, I come around to his way of thinking. So I offered a small protest, then shut up and got to pondering. Two months later and I think I’ve got it.
My son has been raised in the arts. He watches his parents and other adults create something out of nothing Every.Single.Day. He can’t possibly believe that adults are not creative. No. What he’s saying is that adults lack imagination.
According to Merriam Webster:
Imagination: the ability to imagine things that are not real : the ability to form a picture in your mind of something that you have not seen or experienced
So, essentially, imagination is the ability to picture things that are different from what your experience has taught you.
So, maybe Grey is right. Maybe our imaginative potential does diminish as we age (although ten years seems like a rather arbitrary and merciless cut off date). I think children DO have the ability to imagine the world more deeply, simply because they don’t have the pressure of experience to drag their fancies back to earth. They imagine being a doctor, and an actor, and race car driver, all at once, because they don’t yet have the experience of limited time. They imagine flying to the moon for lunch because they don’t yet have experience of physics, let alone NASA requirements and regulations.
Of course, as adults, we can imagine these things too. We can imagine them for about three seconds. Then our rational, experienced brain, steps in to bring us back to earth, to tell us why it can’t be done, to remind us that thinking along those lines will only lead us to disappointment. Ah, disappointment. As adults, we are ridiculously good at imagining disappointment. In fact, we can imagine that better than any child alive.
So, maybe Grey is wrong. Maybe the trouble with growing up isn’t that we lose our imagination, only that we choose to imagine the wrong things. And if we can imagine one thing, well, then, we can imagine something different too, right? We can imagine that it all DOES work out. We can imagine that we get the girl, or the job, or the idea. We can imagine that we are fearless, that we are powerful, that (to paraphrase The Help) we are smart, kind, and important.
What if we gave up imagining our failures, and instead chose to imagine our success? What might the world look like? What might we accomplish? One thing for sure: we could give all those kids a run for their money and show them that being an adult is so much better than they’ve ever imagined.