“Mom, you’re the tooth fairy, aren’t you?” accused my nine year old daughter out of the blue one morning as she held up a tooth in her fingers. Molly had conducted a test after finding an old tooth (who knows where) – put it under her pillow as she had many times, but this time the tooth fairy had not taken it nor left money in its place.
Busted. I had no come back but, “Yeah, it’s true”, which was not too hard for me to say as I thought she was clearly old enough to know the truth. She was disappointed but her disappointment was tempered by her pride in her detective skills.
Molly followed me into the bedroom as I was making my bed. From the other side of the bed, she said, “Mom, if I ask you a question will you tell me the truth?” Here it comes, I thought. Amazing. This was exactly the same setup (across a bed) and same wording of the question I asked my mother way back when.
“Yes, I will,” I said thinking again that she was definitely old enough.
When Molly was seven, having heard something at school, no doubt, she asked the same of her father. “Papa, if I ask you a question, will you tell me the truth?” His answer was yes. “Is there a Santa Claus?”
My husband hates (to put it mildly) the Santa lie. So he had no qualms about answering, “No.”
“Really?” Molly exclaimed in disbelief.
Bless his heart, my husband answered, “Well, what do you think, Moll?”
“Oh, I think there is,” she confidently replied.
“Well, you’re probably right,” he said, a little disappointed, as he knew he had to live the lie even longer. He also knew that she still needed to believe for a little longer (and that I would kill him if he destroyed her belief).
So here was Molly at nine years old – having held onto her belief two years more. I thought she was ready.
“Actually, no…” was as far as I got before she threw herself onto the bed, tears gushing as if I had killed our dog, and yelled at me, “You’ve lied to me all these years!”
I looked down at this forsaken child, took a breath and said, “Molly, do you wish you had never believed in Santa Claus?”
She held back her sobs momentarily and said quietly, “No.”
Ah, vindicated, I thought. She’ll come around quickly. Then with renewed outrage, she threw herself further across the bed and cried out, “And I suppose you’re going to tell me there’s no Easter Bunny either!”
There it was – all three icons of childhood nailed in about five minutes. My heart went out to her. She had crossed the line and joined a new group: The keepers of the secrets.
The capacity to believe in something you can’t see or touch – from a gut feeling, to a higher power, to one’s inner self, to the invisible bonds of family, to hope for the future – may be necessary to survive and thrive in a roller-coaster world.
In the twenty-five years I have been a family counselor and parenting educator, I have learned from more than my own personal experience that children have a developmental need for fantasy and an understanding of the space beyond the human spectrum that slowly diminishes with maturity and increasing cognition.
A child’s eager belief in something as illogical as Santa, monsters, imaginary friends, tooth fairy, a giant rabbit bearing eggs, or stuffed animals and dolls having life, signifies a developmental stage in which imagination soars. Super powers and super heroes always find their way into children’s play. Fairy tales have been around for centuries because they validate a child’s capability to imagine the unimaginable.
Research, like this study from The University of Texas at Austin, shows that developing imagination and “magical thinking” in young children is critical in understanding reality, people, and things they don’t directly experience, as well as understanding other points of view.
Dr. Sandra Russ has found that early imaginative play is associated with creativity in later years. Dr. Jacqueline Woolley believes that children with imaginary friends are more creative, have better social understanding, and increased ability to take the perspective of others.
Dr. Woolley suggests that parents encourage their children’s imaginative play and if they do not want to perpetuate a belief in fantasy characters such as Santa Claus, they should encourage it in other ways by allowing imaginary friends, dress up, and pretend play.
We can learn – and remember – from the purity and loyalty of a child’s beliefs. We must never belittle or fear them. We must hold carefully what they believe in, even if they are inconvenient to us or fly in the face of knowledge.
Children believe as long as they need – often beyond a sibling, friend, or even parent telling them otherwise. Gracefully allow them to grieve the loss and then graduate, to cross that line into the knowing when they’re ready, so they can become keepers of the secrets for their own children.