The other day, my seven-year-old daughter looked me in the eye and asked, in a lawyerly tone, “Is the Tooth Fairy real?”
Something about the directness of both her gaze and her question made me stop and, after years of tap dancing around the issue, answer her honestly. Her reply? “Finally, I get a straight answer out of you!” She then asked me why I had never told her the truth before. So we talked, in our way, about real and not real, about the importance of magical thinking, the power of our imaginations, and the beauty of believing. All questions that inevitably come up for families around the holidays.
Santa, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy. They’re all cut from the same fantastical cloth. How was I so certain my daughter was ready to hear the unfiltered truth? I wasn’t. Even now I wonder, Did I do the right thing? And did I do it too soon?
I do know this. Somehow, in that moment, the lovely game of pretend we’d all been playing (including 10 PM scrambles to the ATM for fairy money and my ritualistic hoarding of human teeth) felt less like fun and more like…lying. It turns out she’s at the age when this shift happens for a lot of kids.
“With very young children, until they reach somewhere around age seven, they often can’t draw the distinction between fantasy and reality,” says social psychologist Susan Newman, PhD, author of Little Things Long Remembered. “You know your child. You can tell by the tone of voice or the way the question is worded, if he or she knows or doesn’t know. If you’re feeling extremely guilty, then you can fess up at that point.”
But! If your gut tells you to keep the magic going, then spread that holiday cheer with abandon.
“Santa is a harmless lie,” says Dr. Newman. “I personally don’t know any child who suffered from believing in Santa or grew up and said, ‘My parent is a liar.’ I mean, I haven’t run across anybody.” In fact, many experts tout the cognitive and social benefits of believing. “Given this particular year, young kids feel parental anxiety and stress no matter how hard you try to hide it. So the fantasy of Santa, particularly now, seems a good thing to me. Believing in Santa Claus is short-lived. It is a harmless lie.” By writing the letters, putting out the cookies, and passing down those family traditions, “you’re creating an interaction with your child. It’s a bonding experience. You’re emblazoning a memory.”
As for some of the thornier questions that come up, like, ‘Why does Santa visit our neighbor’s house but not ours?’ THAT is the time for honesty. “Simply say, We don’t celebrate Christmas. We have other religious beliefs. We have different traditions in our family,” says Dr. Newman. “That’s the only way you can do it.”
And if your kid spills the beans to another child? Don’t stress. “It’s going to happen on the playground. An older sibling will ruin it for a younger sibling. As a parent, you can’t control everything,” says Dr. Newman, whose son is grown up. “This is not worth escalating your guilt level about. You can share information and ask your child not to ruin it for others, but once you’ve presented that warning, it’s completely out of your hands. You can’t monitor a kid’s every move or every thought as they get older. This is not the end of the world.”
There’s a time for the straightforward truth, and there’s a place for fairy tales. They can coexist. It’s all yet another parental balancing act.
To everything there is a season. If your kids are still little enough to believe in magic, permission granted to enjoy this one.