Dreams are a hard concept to explain to a 3-year old with a limited English vocabulary. Months ago, I started asking him in the morning if he had “good things” in his head when he was sleeping. He would look at me blankly, unsure of my meaning. Sometimes I would tell him, “Well, when Mommy was sleeping, she had a dream that there were kitty cats in the bath tub! And then stopped sleeping, and they were not there!” (This is a total lie, of course, as my dreams are typically more absurd and grim. Last week I had a dream that Mr. P and I were camping in the Wild West and he made me cook dinner over a fire for a grizzled man with a gun because there were lots of men with guns surrounding us and this way, we’d be safe for the evening. But “cats in the bathtub” is more child-friendly.)
I remember reading that children typically dream about animals 50% of the time, so I once asked him if he “saw any animals” while he was sleeping. This seemed to frighten him. “Animals, in my room?” As if, at night time, our house was invaded.
We used to speculate that Little Boy had bad dreams because of his nighttime tendency to wake up and run to our bed, whimpering. For sure, there are complex memories in his head that could manifest in nightmares. But after we instituted the “sleeping sticker” system (in which Little Boy received a sticker for every night he stayed in his bed, and after ten stickers he got a prize) he instantly stopped coming to our bed. I think he just needed to know that we wanted him to stay in his bed. It has saved us hours upon hours of sleep, and it only cost us ten stickers and a cheap airplane that lights up and makes jet noises.
The concept of dreams was gradually made clear by library books. We read a few stories that graphically illustrated dreams — a little boy in bed with a thought cloud above him showing the boy playing outside, stuff like that. “Dreams,” I said repeatedly, pointing to the thought clouds. This clicked with him, and one morning over eggs he told us excitedly about how he saw tigers playing while he was sleeping. “Was it scary?” I asked him. “No!” he said brightly. “I want to dream tigers again!”
Indeed, most of his dreams do involve animals, though these might be the easiest for him to articulate. Yesterday morning he gave me a rambling rendition of a dream involving some boys from his preschool catching a “bad guy.” (It’s interesting that he uses this term, which he probably picked up from those very same school friends.) “We run and get him!” he told me with great gusto, and I marveled at the fortitude of dream-state Little Boy. Of course, I marvel at everything he does.