When you’re only three years old, life is just bursting with possibility. On any given day, it seems perfectly plausible to my three-year-old twins that something brand new, amazing, or even magical could happen.
They are always ready: ready to be excited, to be astonished, to believe in something impossible, at a moment’s notice.
Nowhere is this childhood openness more evident than in their beliefs about animals.
A few weeks ago, my husband asked the kids, “What do you think you’d like to be for Halloween?” They all knew, almost instantly, that they wanted to be animals. On Halloween night (or, more realistically, late Halloween afternoon) I’ll be shepherding a dog, a bunny, and a butterfly around the neighborhood. These are not extraordinary costume ideas. Probably millions of dogs, bunnies, and butterflies will show up at doorsteps all over the U.S. this Halloween. But to me, my kids’ choice to dress up as animals, not as beloved characters like Elsa, Dora, or Curious George, is significant.
For my kids, animals are a little bit magical. They’re mysterious. We have two dogs, so dogs might be in a slightly different category for them, but aside from dogs, they don’t really see a huge difference between the domestic and the exotic, the real and the imaginary, when it comes to animals.
When we took them to visit their preschool this summer, I spied some sort of class pet rummaging around in the corner of a cage. I couldn’t tell at first if it was a hamster, or a rat, or a guinea pig, but it was glossy and black and clearly rodent-ish. “Look, girls!” I called, “Come see who’s in this cage over here!”
They ran over to investigate.
Captain Chaos pressed her face close to the cage and squealed, “Is it a PENGUIN?!?”
She honestly thought it was possible that her preschool had its very own penguin. And while she may have been a tiny bit disappointed, she was still pretty psyched when she learned that it was a guinea pig.
Then, at the fair last month, we took the girls to the farm animal petting barn. It was so much better than last year. They were so excited to be greeted by a mob of crazy goats that The Enforcer shouted, “HI GOATS!! I LOVE YOU!!” Once we finished feeding the goats and ventured farther into the barn, though, Captain Chaos turned to her sisters and whispered, “Walk very careful! There’s elephants here!”
I don’t know why she thought there could be elephants in the farm animal barn at the county fair, but it made perfect sense to her. The twins kept a vigilant look-out for those elephants too, because when we peeked into a barn full of enormous bulls, (and decided there was no way we were taking our goofy little crew past those scary horns and hooves) The Enforcer asked, wide-eyed, “Are those things the elephants?!?”
She was hoping. Really hoping that they just might be elephants.
But the thing about my girls and their wonder at the animal kingdom that gets me the most is that until pretty recently, they talked about being animals, as though in life, people got the chance to actually turn into various kinds of animals.
How amazing would that be?
And they truly believed it could happen!
I would hear them, as they watched the dogs chasing a ball around the yard, say things like, “When we are dogs, we can run fast like that.” At first I just let it go, but then I couldn’t help but explain to them that while we can pretend to be animals, people don’t actually turn into dogs or squirrels or penguins.
It had been a while since I’d heard them say anything like that again, but just the other day at lunch, one of them was talking about a woodpecker. She said, “When we are birds, we can use our beaks to peck, peck, peck at the trees!”
“Yes!” her sister agreed. “And we can fly so high all the way over our house!”
They sat, imagining how great that would be for a minute, until one of them said, quietly, “But people don’t really turn into birds.”
“No. Not really.”
They went back to eating their sandwiches, but I was left feeling a little bit sad. Sad that already, some of the magic of childhood is leaving them. Their imaginations are strong, and I’m sure they could feel the wind in their wings and the sun on their backs as they looked down with bright bird eyes onto the roof of our house.
But then they landed. They know, more and more each day, what is possible and what is not. That’s just life: growing and learning and getting older, and it’s hard.
I just hope that for as long as they can, they hold onto the magic and mystery of animals. I hope that in their hearts, they keep the tiniest spark of belief that one day, they will be birds.