Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Indulging Children's Fantasies

The "Easter Bunny" on Matt's lap at Whole Foods

I read an article in Mothering Magazine about a mother who decided to nurture her daughter's interest in fairies by responding to her daughter's letters to fairies, from the perspective of a fairy.

When the daughter learned the truth several years later, she felt completely betrayed and cried and cried.

I remember having a similar reaction when I discovered my old teeth in my mother's underwear drawer. I remember finding those little packages of tissue and tooth that I so carefully prepared for the tooth fairy. When I found those packets, I immediately made the logical leap that my mother must have also been faking Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I, too, felt completely betrayed, and I did lose a bit of trust in our relationship.

I guess parents have to decide what is better: years of anticipation/fun/excitement and a potential, powerful betrayal years later or not indulging in any of the fantasies and being honest the whole time.

For me, I think my answer is that I choose to be honest the whole time. I won't actively say, "Santa Claus doesn't exist," but I won't put packages under the tree and sign them as if they're from Santa. I won't set out cookies, eat them when the children are sleeping, and intentionally leave crumbs on the floor.

I understand why people help children dwell in the magic of childhood, but I can't help but worry about the underbelly of such practices. I want our child to trust our words and our actions. I want to model living with integrity and honesty. I don't want our child to have the rug pulled out from under his feet when he discovers that we've been lying to him for so many years.

I imagine that this approach will be quite controversial! I don't mean to sound like I'm judging others who choose to cultivate fantasy in their children's lives. I just wanted to share my perspective and start a dialogue.

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Anonymous said...

My parents told us from an early age that santa was make believe as they didn't want to lie to us. But they also took us to breakfast at the mall with santa. Gifts from santa were wrapped by mom and me for my brother or vice versa,and placed uder the tree when they were wrapped, so we knew santa didn't bring them, he is make believe. I enjoed santa and learned about fiction all at once.

Adrienne Hout said...

I agree. When I was pregnant with my son I dreamed of christmas days and thought to myself I never wanted to go the cliche traditional santa clause route, I wanted my son to know me and his dad worked hard to give him nice things and appreciate US not a fictional person. I didn't want him to believe a man sneaking into the house in the middle of the night to give you gifts was something that was okay. I understand the glamour and tradition of the holidays but my personal choice is to stick with honesty. I believe fantasies are okay, as long as my child knows that they are just fantasies.

Anonymous said...

I was angry when we mother admitted Father Christmas wasn't real. But on the other hand, there was a lot of fantasy in my childhood, particularly dragons, lions, dogs and similar invisible animals which came with me to school and helped me get through the day (I was shy). The huge difference was that I was expected to believe that Father Christmas was real, real like the postman or my grandma, whereas I knew and Mum knew I knew that the lion statues on the wall didn't genuinely come alive and follow us. The invisible animals were exactly as real as characters in stories and no one expected me to believe otherwise. In fact I think we called them 'imaginary animals'. I think there's a huge difference between lying to kids and pretending with them. It would be a shame never to pretend. Anyway that's my two cents.

Best of luck, Sara -- random people from the other side of the world are thinking of you and wishing you well.

Adrienne Hout said...

somehow i put the wrong link under my name.

lisa said...

I never told my kids there was a Santa---I didn't want to encourage that much greed. Unlimited stuff that you wrote on a list? Dear gods!

When the gimmies reared their ugly head, I suggested either a: putting it on a list, which we then visited at birthdays and Christmas, to review and see what was REALLY still wanted, or b: said that's nice. And redirected the conversation to a present for someone else, i.e., "and what shall we give Grammy for Christmas?"

It worked wonders, partially by providing a lesson in the temporary nature of "wants" in a very tangible fashion.

Catfish said...

Another way to look at Santa - and other figures like Santa - is that he fulfills a deap-seated psychological need, and is a mythic figure rooted in our history and shared experience. I especially like this quote (yes, it's from an episode of Bones, but that doesn't make it any less awesome - in fact I put it on my holiday cards one year) about why it's OK to let kids believe in Santa: "As adults we're imbued by the pragmatic routines of life, which makes it difficult for us to regard anything with childlike wonder. But, you know, it's all right for us to try. We put on silly hats, and drape trees with sparkly lights, and wrap gifts in garish paper, and that's good for us. It's not only all right for us to allow children the transient experience of innocence and joy, it's our responsibility." I believed in Santa for much longer than other kids -- because I'd seen his sleigh outside my house, but that's another story -- and I'm certainly glad I had that opportunity.

Aamba said...

That issue worries me as well.

When I was a kid, I was frightened and disturbed by the idea of a stranger wandering around in our house at night, so the Santa Claus fantasy didn't last long for me, however...

I did go to a Waldorf preschool where they spoke a lot about fairies and garden gnomes.

I hope (if I ever have children) to not lie, but also not to shut down possibilities. The world is a magical place, even without making things up. I want to focus on the magic that is present in nature and to also acknowledge that there may be magic I know nothing about, anything is possible.

SingColleen said...

I too experienced that sense of betrayal when my dad told me Santa wasn't real, but was more annoyed that I knew several years before most of my friends. As in, " I could have gone on believing in this for a few more years?!?" Heh...

We're not having kids, but I think if we were, I wouldn't want let them think those things are real. But here's the conundrum: if your kids know, then what's to stop them from telling their friends and ruining it for other parents? How do you explain that it's okay for other parents to pretend it's real?

Heather said...

My husband and I have also agreed to be honest with our future kids. We don't want to lie to them only to devastate them later when they figure it out. Better to foster healthy, honest imagination than to start things off by lying to them. They can still have just as much fun and enjoyment even knowing that Santa is make-believe. I grew up knowing that Santa wasn't real, and had a very healthy imagination nonetheless.

kelly said...

My fiance and I just had a discussion about this very topic. I'm all for not telling our (future) kids that there's a Santa, while he is pretty adamant that we do. It will be interesting to see what we decide when the time comes.

Thanks for getting the discussion rolling on this! It's really interesting to hear the different perspectives.

jes [a mountain bride] said...

interesting. when i found out those things weren't real it didn't really bother me. believing in them was such a magical treat that I LOVED having little siblings to keep up the secret for!

childhood fantasies are one of life's joys. well...they were for me. i still believe in santa.

Anonymous said...

We are not doing Santa Claus. I remember being terrified when thinking that a fat old man could fit down our chimney... what was stopping all the burgulars in our city from dropping down the chimney, too?! I was convinced I would be kinapped and carried out the chimney one night. So, my dad finally took me up on the roof, where he showed me that our chimney was indeed too small for anyone to squeeze down & that it was covered by a wire mesh, to boot. What a relief!

In our family we put stockings up on Christmas Eve. Then each member of the family has until Christmas morning to sneak their gifts into the stocking without anyone seeing them. It preserves the element of anticipation & even the festive "look" of hanging stockings... but everyone knows the various gifts are from mom, dad, etc. Gifts from extended family (grandparents, etc.) go under the tree & are opened on Christmas Eve.

So... I don't think we're lacking anything in our festivies, yet Santa is not invited to our Christmas. I explain that other parents choose to pretend that Santa brings their kids' gifts -- and it is not our business to interfer with the way they choose to celebrate (ie, no telling other kids Santa does not exist!)... but it is simply not the way we are choosing to celebrate. It's worked well for us. :)

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Carrie Dee said...

I actually have very fond memories of Santa. I was an adamant believer as a little kid, and then slowly started figuring this out. Even after I knew, and my mom knew I knew, she still played Santa. It gave her joy to pretend for herself once a year. And It gives me joy to remember it.

But maybe my parents struck a balance. They never flat out told me "santa is real" They always were vague, like "some people say Santa is such-and-such...what do you think?" They also focused on the goodness that Santa represented, not the gifts he gave out. I have a feeling with my kids, I will do the same. And when they begin to question, allow it by having conversations about Santa.

As a kid Santa was a great way to pretend. Now that I'm an adult I see my parents were trying to give me an exercise in critical thinking. I have no idea if this will work with my kids. And you all make valid points. But, for better or worse, Santa will be a part of my children's lives.

Anonymous said...

My parents tried to nurture both the value of tradition and the value of truth when dealing with "kids holiday fantasies". My mother never told us Santa did or did not exist instead she talked about the 'spirit of santa' what it stood for and told us that as long as you believe in it there will continue to be presents under the tree. This helped her avoid lying to us but allowed her to share with us the value of belief and imagination and when we found out that my parents were santa then we didn't feel lyed to, we felt that that was part of the spirit of Santa. Also, the presents that were under the tree almost always reflected family values, we each got a book to nurture reading, a game to encourage playing together, a new outfit and something from our Christmas list.

Megan W. said...

I think the recent trend of not letting kids believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, etc. is really, really sad.

I grew up believing in all of these "characters," and I don't regret it one bit! I loved the magic of it all. In fact, I remember when I found out that Santa wasn't real - I was seven years old. That year, I left a note beside the cookies asking "Santa, are you really real?" On Christmas morning, there was a reply from Santa - written in my Dad's handwriting! I knew right then that Santa wasn't real, and that Mom and Dad had been putting out the presents all along.

And GUESS WHAT: I was not "devastated" or "scarred for life," nor did I feel "betrayed" or "lied to" by my parents - not at all! I just went about my business and continued to be a happy kid.

I also remember snooping in my Dad's office around the same age - in one of his desk drawers, I found a box of my baby teeth. At that moment, I also knew the Tooth Fairy wasn't real. Oh well! Again, it wasn't a big deal at all.

For people who argue that propagating the Santa myth also teaches kids not to appreciate the work parents do to have $$ for gifts - I don't believe that, either! There are PLENTY of ways and opportunities to raise kids to understand and appreciate that parents have to work hard to put food on the table, etc. Even though I grew up believing in Santa, I knew darn well how hard my Dad worked and was raised to appreciate it.

Don't take the magic out of childhood! I look forward to raising my future children with Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc.

Ashley P said...

I agree with you, Sara. I was really confused by the whole "Santa reveal" as a kid.

At around 8 years old, I had a friend whose family didn't celebrate Santa, and she was the one who told me that Santa didn't come to her house. To this day, my mom still resents this girl as the one who "ruined Santa" for me. But really, I was more upset by the deception. I didn't understand the point. I remember asking my mom why she went along with it all, and she didn't have an answer. I don't know that she ever thought about how I would feel when I found out. My brother, on the other hand, never seemed to care one way or the other. So I'm sure all kids handle it differently. But trust was an issue in my childhood, and Santa was just one more lie.

Really, I think the Santa thing was for her. She liked it. I think it's that way for a lot of parents. But there have been some great suggestions in the comments about how to have a meaningful Christmas without Santa.

I hope that I can instill a sense of wonder in my children through encouraging curiosity, questioning, appreciation for nature, and reflection. I don't think I need Santa for that.

C├ęcy said...

I have great memories of Christmas and Santa Claus. I don't remember being shocked when I find out he didn't exist. I just remember my cousin showing us were the presents were hidden and that parents did it.
I think it's the same for my husband. We haven't really talked about what we'll do yet, but to me those are cherished childhood memories and I want to incorporate them somehow. I like the idea of the Spirit of Santa.
After all Santa Claus is not just imaginary, he comes from Saint Nicolas, there is a reason behind it.
There is part of me that want to keep the family tradition. I loved putting hot chocolate and mandarins under the tree, and my husband remembers putting whiskey for his Santa...
There is also a part of me that want our children to understand that this is a Christian tradition and that not everyone does it.

The last aspect is imagination, so will you also tell your children that fairies, gnomes, witches, talking animals and more dont' exist? Because I still want to believe in those a little. It's the beauty of childhood and imagination, believing that everything is possible. Plus we don't know everything yet. We always though the giant squids were sailors stories, well guess what!
I just think that imagination has it's part in our lives. I don't feel I got screwed up in my life by being told about Father Christmas, the mouse that picked up our teeth (no tooth fairy for me), and the Easter Bells (no bunnies here either). So I don't think I'll do damage to my children by having those traditions. But I do understand the need to make them understand as they grow older the difference between the spirit of and the reality of some of those characters.

Amy said...

I had the picture perfect, most ideal childhood and we believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. We also knew that Christmas was celebrating the day of Christ's birth and the entire story of Easter, despite having a "looser" relationship with our Unitarian church.

By all means, you can let your child know the harsh realities of life earlier. Children in third world countries certainly do. Or you can see these fantastical stories and figures as a way to nurture the imagination. There's no right or wrong approach; just make sure you're educating your child in a way that doesn't ruin the innocence for other children. No one appreciated the five year old who ruins the fantasy for an entire classroom.

Speaking of children, did you have yours? I feel rather like when you thought you were having a miscarriage early on and then left us all holding our breath and losing sleep over your health for days even though everything was fine.

Carrie said...

I'm completely with Megan W., Amy and jes. Didn't hurt me one bit when I found out the real deal. As Amy said, please don't let your child ruin the "magic" for mine. And once you have a kid whose face LIGHTS UP with joy and excitement at books with Santa, seeing Santa at the mall, etc., you might feel differently. It's pretty cool.

Mary B. said...

There's a fantastic thread on offbeat mama about this topic. Worth a read, for sure. I don't have kids yet, so I don't know what my partner and I will tell them about Santa and his crew.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember feelig particularly betrayed or lied to when I found out there wasn't a Santa or Easter bunny, etc. I remember kind of just rolling with the punches. But I do remember the excitement believing in those things brought me as a child. Our parents do lots of things "to us" while we grow up that we might nit understand at the time. They might tell us Santa isn't real, or send us to our rooms or ground us. They might make us sad or feel betrayed AR the time. But then when you grow up, and those things make a lot of sense and maybe even make you smile with memory that they did those things for you (including putting on the Santa charade). I don't see these things as doing long term damage. Just my opinion.

lindel said...

I am not sure why, but I figured out the truth behind Santa, the Tooth fairy and Easter Bunny at different times - most likely within a year of each other.

I found out about the tooth fairy late one night when my parents got back from the theatre. They came to check on me and I sleepily told them how I lost my tooth. The next thing I hear is my dad rummaging in his pocket for some coins.

The Easter Bunny puzzled me a bit. I was on a camping trip with a friend's family one year and I didn't understand how my eggs were different (and a lot smaller) than the one my friends got.

And Santa Claus, well one day months before Christmas my sister pointed out a book she liked. Mum sent me back to the shop to get it and the book appeared in her stocking at Christmas.

The point is I didn't feel betrayed. If anything I felt like I had matured - shed some skin or come out of a cocoon. It was almost transformative. My other overwhelming feeling was amazement and respect for my two older siblings who had managed to keep it a secret from me and let me have the fantasy. I do love my brother and sister but there was not much other evidence in our childhood of that kind of kindness.

As for our son, I am undecided. I too am uncomfortable with signing presents from santa, but one of the great joys of my childhood was finding my stocking on Christmas morning.

lindel said...

PS: can't wait to hear news! I am very anxious but am hoping you are just taking some very necessary family time. Good luck and my best thoughts are with you all.

FM said...

This topic is always interesting to me, because I'm Jewish and grew up in a mostly Christian town, so my parents taught us that other kids believed in this santa stuff and to be respectful of it while still being clear with our friends that we didn't celebrate that holiday and santa didn't come to our house or give us stuff. My parents were also not really into magic stuff in general. We had the tooth fairy, but I don't think they ever gave me a reason to think the tooth fairy was a real fairy, just kind of a make-believe game we played when we lost teeth.

I would like to have the same approach to magic with my kids that Aambra describes above - honesty, but leaving space for possibilities.

Randa said...

My parents played the holiday characters somewhat like you're planning with your child. Growing up, they told us that these characters were symbols that people liked to use to represent the holidays, much like a Christmas tree, Easter Eggs, and rockets on the Fourth of July! We were allowed to make up our minds if we want to "play along" or not but my parents were always reminding us not to ruin it for others. Now-a-days, I know their reason was because not all children were told the same thing we were but then I thought it was just apart of the character's charm when I was a child.

I felt that this way may have given me more of an 'active' imagination and I loved it! My parents were honest with me but let me participate in the traditions of other kids. It was never a "it's silly to believe in Santa Claus" feeling with the talks we had with our parents but more of a wonderful tradition.

Good luck with your labor, Sara!

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