dare to dream

What This Kids’ Movie Taught Me About The Power Of Imagination

Turns out, I got the message loud and clear, too.

Written by Jen Swetzoff
©2023 Paramount Pictures. All Right Reserved.
©2023 Paramount Pictures. All Right Reserved.

When my kids were little, they truly believed they had superpowers. They could morph into other people: Belle with a yellow dress and white gloves, or Harry Potter with a black robe and rimmed-round glasses. They could slide a book across the table with their eyes if they stared at it hard enough. They could fly over the biggest cracks in the sidewalks. They could wave a wand and cast a spell.

But that was all before they turned 10 or so, and the “growing up” phase started. Fitting in and being cool? So much more important than playing pretend and being silly.

As a writer who sometimes likes writing, I know, with some authority, that it’s not easy to be creative. Or funny. Or imaginative. Coming up with new ideas is hard. Putting yourself out there, in a vulnerable way? Always scary. Especially when you’re growing up.

But I miss how my kids used to make it all look so easy.

When they were really young, maybe 4, each of their imaginations was a visible, tangible thing. I knew they could see it, and I could see it, too. It was contagious. They’d make robots and machines out of boxes. They’d scoop invisible ice cream cones at the playground and I’d pay for the privilege of eating one. They’d talk to their stuffed animals and I’d pretend that was normal. Their imagination made them glow.

I think that’s why I cried, more than I expected to, when I watched IF, which stands for imaginary friends. (Spoiler alert: The IFs glow, too, when their kids see them.) This movie reminded me so much of the imaginary play that has faded over the past few years in my house. But it also reminded me that imagination is like the moon. It fades — and then it reappears.

My crying wasn’t surprising if you know me, because I cry pretty easily over a good story. As this story goes: Bea (the main character of IF) handles some legit hard stuff like a full-on tween: someone who’s determined to show the world, and herself, that she is fine. Even though she’s really sad, scared, and lonely. She says she’s “not a kid,” but she’s also totally a kid. During the movie, we get to see her realize that. And as she escapes into a world of wonder and magic, she starts to become carefree and joyful and the best version of herself again.

While watching the movie, I kept glancing over at my kids, wondering what they were thinking about. Were they just into it because of the funny characters? Were they just sad because the story is sad? Or did my tween son remember how much time he used to spend building inventions, like a “forward-backward garbage collector,” out of paper, tape, and string? Or how many hours he could get lost daydreaming during the pandemic, just staring out into space, deep in his own imagination? Did my teen daughter remember the sappy songs she used to write on our keyboard? Or how often she used to teach a class to her stuffed animals, scribbling out lessons on a white board with washable markers, and telling them to sit back down?

Maybe these memories are mine, more than theirs, but they’ve been flooding back to me after watching IF. And the movie made me realize that even if my own growing kids don’t show me their imagination so blatantly anymore, it doesn’t mean they’re not imaginative.

Their imagination is present in so many little ways, like when my son made me a Mother’s Day sign out of his own birthday banner and a handmade origami-like flower. My daughter started making bracelets out of embroidery string again this week, and she is a hairstyling genius. All of that comes from imagination. So even if it seemed like it was fading for a while, it always reappears. Just like the movie said it would. Maybe anything really is possible.

Jen Swetzoff is a mom of two, writer and editor and is a co-founder of Anyway, a new magazine focusing on health, wellbeing, and culture for kids 9-15. Find her at www.anywaymag.com and on Instagram @anywaymag.