Robert Moss gives us nine powerful tools to help children explore, understand, and cherish their dreams.
“The child’s psyche is of infinite extent and incalculable age.”
~Carl Jung, “The Development of Personality”
To understand dreams and reclaim the practice of imagination, we must look to the master teachers: our inner children, and the children around us. When very young, children know how to go to Magic Kingdoms without paying for tickets, because they are at home in the imagination and live close to their dreams.
When she was four years old, my daughter Sophie had adventures in a special place called Teddy Bear Land, where she met a special friend. I loved hearing about these travels, and encouraged her to make drawings and spin further stories from them.
One day Sophie sat down beside me and asked with great earnestness, “Daddy, would you like to know how I get to Teddy Bear Land?”
“I’d love to.”
“Sometimes I take the Sun Gate. Sometimes I take the Moon Gate. Sometimes I take the Tree Gate. Sometimes I take the Rainbow Bridge. And sometimes I just punch a hole in the world.”
I’ve never heard anyone say it better. To live the larger life. we need to punch a hole in the world. This is what dreaming — sleeping or waking or hyper-awake — is really all about. On our roads to adulthood, we sometimes forget how to do it, just as older children in the Chronicles of Narnia cease to be able to see Aslan as they approach adolescence and become more and more burdened by the reality definitions of the grown-ups around them.
When we listen, truly listen, to very young children, we start to remember that the distance between us and the Magic Kingdoms is no wider than the edge of a sleep mask. True listening requires us to pay attention; to attend, in its root meaning in the Latin, is to stretch ourselves, which requires us to expand our vocabulary of understanding. We owe nothing less to the young children in our lives. When we do this, we discover that they can be our very best teachers on how to dream and what dreaming can be.
What To Do When You’re Eaten by a T-Rex
“I was eaten by T-Rex.” Brian, aged seven, is rocking in his seat with excitement, but his voice is very soft. The fifteen kids in the circle, plus parents and grandparents, lean forward to hear him. We’ve gathered to spend a half-day Dreaming with Children and Families, in a playshop I love to lead at a local retreat center.
“Did T-Rex swallow you in one gulp?”Brian’s grandmother asks, making her Adam’s apple bobble as she mimics something very big taking a big gulp. “Or did he kind of munch on you?”
“It was a big gulp.” Brian’s eyes are gleaming with excitement. “Then I was falling down, down into T-Rex’s belly. I found two eggs. I cut them open and there were two baby T-Rexes inside. They came out and they killed the big T-Rex and I was fine.”
“How did you feel?” I ask.
You don’t analyze a dream like this, whatever the age of the dreamer — at least not until you do something to grab the vital energy of the dream and embody it and bring it through. This isn’t a hard study with Brian’s dream. We have a room full of excited kids and kids are naturals for dream theater.
“Hey Brian, would you like to play-act your dream?”
Brian can’t wait. He chooses the two youngest children in the group, an angelic four-year old named Abby who has just created a picture with crayons and sketch paper from one of her own dreams — a picture of a wild thing she has given her own name — and a toddler who has proved a virtuoso with maracas and other noisemakers from our communal music box.
“Aunt” Carol, our host at the retreat center and a gifted counselor and dream teacher, is picked to play the snapping head of T-Rex, a tricky role since she can’t stop beaming and laughing. There are plenty of dreamers, kids of all ages, to make up the body and tail of the beast. Soon the monster we’ve made is roaring and thumping around the room. Brian, playing himself, darts around, trying to hide behind the furniture, his fate was preordained. He is swallowed by T-Rex. He rolls over and over, play-acting his descent into the belly of the beast. Way down deep inside, he finds the eggs and frees that baby monsters that return the favor by saving him.
This is wild and happy and just-so, and everybody wants more.
We turn other kids’ dreams into theater, and each time a new strategy emerges for dealing with dream monsters. A ten-year old girl tells us a dream in which she’s at school, on her way to lunch, when a “short monster” appears and starts eating her classmates. “He couldn’t eat me because I kicked him in the face.”
Play-acting that one produces a stampede, as a very small boy, thrilled to be playing the short monster, pursues the dreamer’s classmates until he is laid flat by a pretend kick to his face. Everyone laughs as the dreamer dabs at the slime the short monster has left on her foot.
A thirteen-year old girl in the group is menaced in her dream by people behaving like monsters. She puts on bat wings and flies off to a special place where she can be safe. The scariest adults in the dream are the ones that remain strangely frozen, as if they have been encased in blocks of ice, while she tries to avoid the attackers. In a later scene, she is at a wild ocean. When she plunges in she becomes a killer whale and swims with delight with an orca friend who comes to join her. When she shapeshifts back into the form of a teenage girl, the grown-ups are no longer a threat to her. She has brought power back from the place of the killer whales.
These are scenes from a single afternoon of dreaming with kids and their families, the way our ancestors used to do it and some indigenous peoples still do. We had started out right, by drumming and making cheerful music to call up the dreams that wanted to play with us. Then everyone grabbed art supplies from the center of the circle to make a drawing of a dream.
Also at the center of the room, we had placed a huge toy box, full of stuffed animals and puppets and plastic lizards. I invited the kids to grab any animal they liked. Then, since we were on traditional Mohawk Indian land, I had them join hands and voices in singing a simple Mohawk song that calls in the Bear — and with it, all of the animals — as helpers and protectors.
Don’t cry little one
Don’t cry little one
The Bear is coming to dance for you
The Bear is coming to dance for you
We discussed how, if you have a scary dream, it’s good to know you have a friend who can help you out and take care of you. Little Abby came over to me and whispered confidentially, “I have a Bear. And I have lots of dream friends.”
We broke every half hour for snacks of orange slices and chocolate chip cookies.
Towards the end, I opened my dream journal to a page where I had drawn a picture of Champie — the cousin of the Loch Ness monster who reputedly lives in Lake Champlain — swimming in the East River in front of the island of Manhattan, with delighted kids riding on his back. This was an image that had come to me, spontaneously, in a recent drumming circle.
I told the kids and their parents and grandparents: “A journal like this where you draw your dreams and write down your stories is a treasure book. I hope everyone here will now start keeping a treasure book. Ask the grown-ups who brought you to help you find the right ones. They can help you write down the words if you like. But there’s one thing about a dream journal everyone should know. It’s your special book, and if you don’t want Mommy or Daddy to read it, you should tell them, ‘This is my secret book’’ and they must respect that.
If we are privileged to have access to young children, one of the greatest gifts we can give them — and in the process, ourselves — is to encourage them to record dreams and stories in a book that will become a journal. I did this with my own daughters. When they were very young, they would do the pictures and I would write the words for them. They took over more and more of the writing, as they got older, until, at age nine, they were keeping their journals by themselves and for themselves. Then the same thing happened in each case. They said to me, in effect: “That’s it, Dad. This is my secret book and you can’t read it anymore.”
Now that’s a journal. The secret book of your Self, not to be shared with anyone without permission, which should not be given lightly.
Nine Keys to Helping Kids with Their Dreams
Here’s what we need to know about listening to children’s dreams and supporting their imaginations:
1. Listen up!
When a child wants to tell a dream, make room for that. Make some daily space for dream sharing. Listen to the stories and cherish them for their own sake.
2. Invite good dreams
Pick the right bedtime reading or better still, tell stories. Help your child to weave a web of good dream intentions for the night — for example, by asking “What would you most like to do tonight?” Encourage children to sleep with a favorite stuffed animal (whether teddy bear or T-Rex) and make this a dream guardian.
3. Provide immediate help with the scary stuff
If your child was scared by something in the night, recognize you are the ally the child needs right now. Do something right away to move out that negative energy. Get a frightened child to spit it out (literally) or draw a picture of what scared her and tear it up as violently as possible.
4. Ask good questions.
When the child has told her story, ask good questions. Ask about feelings, about the color of the sky, and about exactly what T-Rex was doing. See if there’s something about the future. Say what you would think about this if this were your dream. Always come up with something fun or helpful to do with this story. Open up the crayon box, call grandma, etc.
5. Help the child to keep a dream journal
Get this started as early as possible. With a very young child, you can help with the words while they do the pictures. When your child reaches the point where she closes the journal and says, “This is my secret book and you can’t read it any more” do not peek. Give her privacy, and let her choose when she’ll let you look in that magic book.
6. Provide tools for creative expression.
Encourage the child to bring dreams come alive through art, dance, theater and games, and to draw or paint dreams. Gather friends and family for dream-inspired games and performance. Puppets and stuffed animals can be great for acting out dreams. This can also be dress-up time. It’s such a release for kids to portray mom or dad or other grown-ups in their lives — be ready to be shocked!
7. Help construct effective action plans
Dreams can show us things that require further action — for example, to avoid an unhappy future event that was previewed in the dream, or to put something right in a family situation. A child will probably need adult help with such things, starting with your help. This will require you to learn more about dreaming and dreamwork, as you are doing now.
8. Let your own inner child out to play
As you listen to children’s dreams, let the wonderful child dreamer inside you come out and join in the play.
9. Keep it fun!
When you get the hang of this, you’ll find it’s about the best home entertainment you can enjoy.
Notice two things that are not on this list, but would be at the very top of a list of what not to do with a child’s dreams:
Never say to a child “It’s only a dream”. Children know that dreams are for real and that scary stuff that comes out in dreams needs to be resolved, not dismissed.
Do NOT interpret a child’s dreams. You’re not the expert here; the child is.
Adapted from Active Dreaming: Journeying beyond Self-Limitation to a Life of Wild Freedom by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library. © Robert Moss. All Rights Reserved.