“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 where she had many others, but this time the tooth fairy had not taken it and left money in it’s 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. But he also knew that she still needed to believe a little longer (and that I would kill him if he destroyed her belief).
So here was Molly at nine—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 dethroned 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—belief may be necessary to survive and thrive in a roller-coaster world.
A child’s eager belief in something as illogical as Santa, monsters, imaginary friends, the aliveness of stuffed animals and dolls, the tooth fairy, or a giant rabbit bearing eggs signifies a developmental need to hang onto something beyond the human spectrum. Fairy tales have survived for centuries because they validate a child’s fears and imagination. May we learn from the purity and loyalty of a child’s beliefs and never belittle them.
We must hold carefully our children’s beliefs, even if they are inconvenient or fly in the face of knowledge. We must perpetuate the child’s capacity for make-believe because their growing imaginations need to take them far.
Children believe as long as they need—often beyond a sibling, friend or even parent telling them otherwise. Gracefully allow them to grieve and then graduate, to cross that line into the knowing when they’re ready, so they can become keepers of the secrets for their children.