One of the benefits of waiting until you are older to have children is that you have more time to think about your childrearing philosophy. You watch others – friends, family, and strangers – interact with their children, noting what you wish to emulate and what you wish to avoid. You spend years developing your opinions on serious questions: do I want him or her to intently focus on one interest or to indulge in a myriad of activities? Should I raise my kids in a specific religion or expose them to many? How will I explain death, war and the existence of bad people to my child? These are some of the “big” questions I’ve considered. However, I recognize as I’m sure most actual parents already know, questions arise daily and as with most things in life, we can only hope to get some of them “right”.
Because of the holiday season, my future parent ponderings have recently been focused on whether I want to lie to my children about Santa (although the same ideas apply to the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, superheroes, and other assorted childhood legends.) I say lie because essentially that is what we are doing when we spread the myth of a man in a red suit who slides down chimneys and rides on a sleigh led by flying reindeers.
Now, as a rule, I hope to be open and honest with my children, even about death, violence, and other aspects of life I’d like to shield them from. I understand the urge to protect young ones from the ugly realities of the world. Yet, ultimately, is it a good idea to keep out the harsh light of human failings for as long as possible and to raise children on these myths of magical beings who can perform miracles?
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that there are some truths we should gradually introduce to children, that watching Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Schindler’s List with a 7 year old might not be the best idea. Yet, while most adults and parents would quickly agree to this, the majority of these same people have no problem convincing their children to believe in St. Nick, the North Pole, Elves on Shelves, and so on without seeing any danger in exposing their children to these stories. In fact, not only do these cultural myths seem harmless; they are actually a lot of fun for children and adults.
But are they really good for us, particularly in the long-term? And are we adults using these stories to cling vicariously to that childhood innocence we lost so long ago?
I can recall when I learned that Santa wasn’t real. I felt betrayed and saddened, feelings similar to those I would experience years later when I realized that many of the stories I’d heard about Jesus and God were potentially untrue as well. As an adult, I cannot help but wonder if this manipulation and deceit, however well-intentioned, might actually create children who are distrustful of adults and disillusioned about life. I cannot help but feel there is something problematic about filling your child’s world with magic and miracles when they will inevitably learn that this is not the world we inhabit. Is the temporary excitement and anticipation really worth the unavoidable letdown and disappointment? Wouldn’t it just be better to help children slowly shed their innocence with carefully phrased truths rather than prolonging their naiveté with fantastical stories and logic-defying legends?
At the same time, while I want to always err on the side of honesty, I cannot imagine depriving a child of the wondrous world these myths create. Not only would it be nearly impossible to avoid the ubiquitous Christmas references everywhere you go, but it might also be neglectful. After all, childhood is the only time where the impossible is possible, when miracles can happen. * Because for there to be magic, there needs to be belief. And unlike an adult who reads Harry Potter and is critical of the inconsistencies in the curses and spells the characters levy against one another, a child simply believes. They have been given no cause to doubt what they are told is true and therefore it is true. But as we get older, we lose this capacity for unmitigated belief. To be an adult, for better or worse, is to see the world for what is really is, people for who they really are. That is not to say that you are pessimistic and dispirited, only that you are more realistic in your endeavors and expectations.
So what is a parent or future parent to do? Do you perpetuate the magical world of fairy tales and fantasies or do you simply help your child see the world for what it is and teach him/her how to make the best out of that reality?
As with most things in life, there is no clear answer, no definitive right or wrong.
Yet, while my ambiguous conclusion might make it seem like all my contemplations have been in vain, not having helped me arrive at a decisive answer, this is not entirely true.
What I do know is that a year after I determined there was no Santa, I stayed up all night on Christmas Eve, waiting anxiously on the couch by the fireplace and tree hoping for my misgivings from the previous year to be proven wrong.
Well, we all know the outcome of my standoff; my doubts were confirmed and my betrayal complete, an experience that should make me want to avoid replicating the same event with my children. Instead, however, it taught me that it is not always the lie itself but rather the lack of explanation about why the lie was told that creates this sense of betrayal.
So for now, my working theory on how to approach this aspect of childrearing is to help children as they shed their naiveté, to not let them feel abandoned in this new world devoid of magic and myth. Perhaps if someone had talked to me about why I had been led to believe in Santa or why we continued to pretend he was real for my younger brothers even though we all knew it was a lie, I wouldn’t have felt so disheartened and deceived.
And then again, maybe that wouldn’t have mattered.
The good thing is that I have some time to think about this decision although in the end, I think it will ultimately be a choice made by the heart rather than the mind. Still, until then, I will be watching, contemplating, and listening, hoping to learn from those of you who have already tackled the toughest and most important job on earth.
**in my opinion, the word ‘miracle’ is overused and a misnomer. For example, while a child being born, even one delivered during an earthquake under ten tons of rubble, is amazing and wonderful, it is not miraculous. A miracle is something for which there is no logical or scientific explanation, which means there is no such thing as a miracle unless you can cease to believe that there is a scientific or logical explanation for everything.