“Are dragons real?” my six year-old son asked me.
He had been reading about dragons for months. He loved them so much that he couldn’t talk about anything else. He drew pictures of them, with sharp horns, large wings, and blazing fire. He pretended to be them as he ran around the house. He even dreamed about them at night.
And he had no doubt that somewhere—Eastern Europe or China, maybe—they flew freely and dangerously around the countryside.
But, one evening before bed, I was reading to him and came across the words, “mythological beast,” in reference to dragons. And thus followed wide eyes and his hesitant question.
I paused, not knowing what to say. To indicate that dragons weren’t real would crush him. Plus, in my mind, I thought: why couldn’t they be real? In so many ways, reality is all about perception. If one thinks things are real, then they are real in their consequences—one sociologist liked to say. That’s what matters, then, perception of reality rather than reality itself.
But, at the same time, something about that line of argument felt strange to me, in this particular case.
I tried an in-between answer. “Well, yes, there are the komodo dragons. They’re very—”
“No,” he stopped me. “I mean, dragon dragons. Are they real?”
“At one time, people thought that they were real,” I said, still side-stepping his question.
“You mean, there are fossils?” he asked. His innocent stare was intense.
I decided to be straight with him. “Not really. Not the kind you’re thinking. You know, mythological means like old stories. People used to talk about dragons because they probably thought they were real, but—”
“They’re just made up creatures,” my oldest son jumped into the conversation with a matter-of-fact tone.
“Really?” my six year-old son said sadly, still looking at me.
I nodded slowly with a commiserating face.
The dragonologist suddenly shut the book about dragons and, for the next two weeks, wouldn’t have anything to do with them. He wouldn’t talk about them or draw them or pretend to be them. He only moped around the house, looking down at the ground most of the time. I felt as if I had taken the life force out of him.
Thankfully, after that, though, little by little he opened up one book on dragons after another, until now at the age of seven he is all about dragons again. The other week he talked non-stop to his friend about the many different kinds of dragons there are—names that I can’t even pronounce.
So, when my two boys got into a debate recently about whether dragons are real or not—my oldest son looking at me with his hands confidently positioned on his hips and my dragonologist staring at me with a tight-lipped grin—I did not hesitate to say, “Of course, they’re real. There just aren’t many of them left and they’re really hard to see because they’re magic.”
“There went one,” my youngest son said cheerfully, pointing behind me. “Ah, you missed him.” He chuckled. “There goes another one,” he said. I turned my head to spot the second dragon. “You missed that one, too,” he laughed.
He bounded off happily into the backyard, no doubt to fly with the dragons.
I glanced at my oldest son, who was still standing there with his hands on his hips. He flashed me a kind smile and gave me a nod of understanding.
Imagination offers great meaning and joy in life.