empathyBy Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

Yesterday, my six-year-old announced that she and her good friend had swapped lunches for the week, pretending to be one another.

“I had a salami sandwich and no pickles. And she had a bagel, cream cheese, yogurt and two pickles.”

The pickles were a key part to this story. It’s evidence that each girl had embraced their alter ego’s preferences with full commitment.

My daughter has had her regular order of a bagel with cream cheese, yogurt and two pickles for most of the last 100 plus days of school. Had I suggested she mix it up a bit, I’d have been met with a firm “no.” She really likes pickles.

But when she pretended to be her friend, she considered the friend’s habits and choices. As she moved through the cafeteria line, she did what her friend would do.

It sounds simple, but it’s this creativity that grown-ups sometimes find so hard to access. It’s a 21st-century skill. It’s the key to innovation, entrepreneurship and success. Everyone seems to be looking for the formula for creativity as if it’s something to build.

In many cases, the real question should be: what can we do so that we don’t kill it.

In an article on The American Psychological Association website, “The Power of Pretending” by Beth Azar, the importance of pretending and specifically role-playing was looked at through the lens of researchers. There was not a consensus on the way it helps children develop, but general agreement that it does.

Some look at how pretending helps the development of theory of mind, “the ability to understand that others have thoughts and feelings all their own,” according to the article.

Azar looks at developmental psychologist Paul Harris, PhD’s book, “The Work of the Imagination,” and his belief in the value of role-playing in particular.

According to the article, Dr. Harris explains:

“My idea is that pretend play doesn’t teach children about the fact that there are mental states,” says Harris. “But it does help them look at things from someone else’s perspective. I would be happy if 3-year-olds didn’t have the faintest idea that pretending involved mental states if they’re busy not being themselves, and thinking about what others would do in certain situations. It’s more the perspective-taking that’s critical, not that they’re thinking there’s something in the head.”


Whether it’s theory of mind, empathy, or expanding your lunch options, it seems the ability to pretend to be someone you’re not can open up possibilities.


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