02/26/2013 04:45 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Big Dreams in Childhood: 'The Richest Jewels in the Treasure House of Psychic Experience'

Most dreams are not especially memorable. They revolve around ordinary activities and concerns from daily life, and we tend to forget them soon after waking. But a few dreams are different. Very different. At least once or twice in life, often in childhood, most people have a dream that strikes them with unusual power and intensity, a dream so realistic and otherworldly that it burns a lasting impression into their memory. These rare but strangely potent dreams are literally impossible to forget.

Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung (1875-1961) referred to them as "big dreams," which he distinguished from the relatively forgettable "little dreams" of ordinary life. Jung emphasized the psychological and spiritual importance of big dreams in childhood, calling them "the richest jewels in the treasure house of psychic experience."

What did Jung mean by that evocative phrase?

As I understand him, Jung meant that big dreams in childhood should not be dismissed as random nonsense, but rather welcomed and celebrated as expressions of a child's growing awareness and imaginative creativity.

He meant that big dreams arise from the same unconscious sources as the myths and symbols of the world's religious traditions, giving children a direct personal experience of wonder, mystery and self-discovery.

He meant that in our fast-paced, rationally-driven modern world, where many people struggle to find existential meaning and spiritual purpose in their lives, the big dreams of childhood represent an innate source of connection with the primal energies of the psyche.

As a parent, you can never be sure when your child is going to have a big dream. But you can be ready.

Part of that is simply maintaining an open interest in any dream your child is willing to share with you, big or little. When parents take dreams seriously, their children are more likely to take dreams seriously, too, and pay more conscious attention when an unusually strange and vivid one occurs.

More proactively, parents can encourage their children to express their big dreams by writing about them (e.g., in a journal or diary), by drawing or painting a picture or through any other artistic medium that conveys the dream's feelings and imagery. The goal is to offer a playful outlet in the waking world for the spontaneous creativity that naturally arises from children's sleeping minds.

No one knows for sure how frequent big dreams are in childhood, because so little research has been done on the subject. In 2011, I commissioned an online survey of 1,199 American children from the ages of 8 to 18, asking them to describe their most memorable dream. Out of the 1,199 participants, 763 (or 64%) gave an answer of at least 10 words in length. This survey is limited in various ways, but it does provide evidence to suggest that big dreams, while rare within each individual's life, may not be rare among the general population.

Kate Adams, an educational psychologist at Bishop Grosseteste University in the U.K., has done in-depth research on the religious dimensions of children's big dreams. She personally interviewed 94 British children between the ages of 9 and 11 about dreams with connections to something "divine," however each child defined that notion. The children came from Christian, Muslim and secular backgrounds, and from all these groups, Adams gathered vivid dream reports that reflected important personal concerns of the child and a deep spiritual curiosity about basic existential questions of human life.

What's striking to me is that these powerful dream experiences apparently received little or no recognition from anyone else in the children's lives. Adams ruefully observes that "Several children told me that I was the only person with whom they had shared their dream -- parents, some said, were not interested or told them, 'It was just your imagination.' As a result, the children retreated into a world of silence until a researcher with a genuine interest came along."

This is the kind of cultural disconnect we need to overcome if we really care about promoting the full development of children's imaginative potentials.