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Oliner, M.M. (2000). Brief Communication: Playing Games Versus Being Fooled. Psychoanal Q., 69(3):551-552.

(2000). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 69(3):551-552

Brief Communication: Playing Games Versus Being Fooled

Marion Michel Oliner, Ph.D.

The recent Italian film Life Is Beautiful described how a father engaged his five-year-old son in a game of make-believe in order to spare him the awareness of his plight as a prisoner of the Nazis, and to enlist him in the struggle to save his life. In the film's fictional story, the child allows himself to be “fooled” and plays his father's games. But even in the film, the degree to which the boy believes his father's games is left vague, while the importance of playing along is conveyed through his father's anxiety. Whether this is clear to the boy is left to the viewer to decide.

There was another child, nine years old—this one not fictional— who gives us a different view of a child's reaction to adult denial: In 1939, she and her mother were fleeing across the border between Germany and Belgium in the middle of the night when she fell into a ditch below the railroad tracks they used to guide them. There was water in the ditch, the child came up drenched, and started to cry. She did not want to go on. Anxiously, the mother said, “If you continue walking, I'll buy you the biggest ice cream in Brussels.” Sobbing, the child replied, “How can you promise me ice cream? Won't we be refugees then?”

The important element in both stories is the child's cooperation in response to the parent's anxiety. The skeptical child, as well as the child who was seemingly fooled, went along with the requirements of the situation, making it likely that both were aware of the danger prompting the anxieties of the parents.

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