Christmas is just around the corner once again, and Dave and Alex, like all children, are very excited. As soon as the shops started showing their Christmas decorations, they asked to take the Christmas tree out. It's been up since the beginning of November at our house. Every day they want to know how many days left to Christmas Day. I showed them on the wall calendar, hoping that they will go there and figure it out themselves; Dave has marked it with a big red sun. They talk about what they would like to get, and last week the three of us went shopping for their cousins' presents. Dave and Alex picked the toys they know better than me that their cousins will like. They insisted in wrapping them up (I helped), and Dave wrote each of his five (on this side of the planet) cousins' names on the packages. It was endearing to see how happy they were at doing all this.
They are excited, yet they don't believe in Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. The first time Dave saw a Santa he was barely seven months old and he was terrified and cried. A couple of years later, aged two and a half, he said, 'That's not Santa Claus, his beard is not real. It's a man in a costume!'
Children ask questions mainly to gain some knowledge. I've always tried to answer them honestly with what I know. Sometimes I don't know the answer, so I suggest that we look it up in a book or google it. This happens a lot when they ask about what a certain animal likes to eat. Other times I tell them that it's not always easy to know 'the truth'. Some people believe this and some others believe that. I tell them what I believe and ask their opinion about it. This comes up a lot when we talk about aliens, the universe and what will happen when we die.
The only times I didn't give them straight answers was when they doubted Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. I didn't indulge in the same stories most other parents tell their children about these fictional characters, but I didn't deny them either. For a while that was because I wasn't sure how to proceed. I had read that it is good for children to believe in fairy tales and the like, even that it is something necessary for their healthy development, sort of to preserve their innocence. But I couldn't bring myself to lie to the kids. And, out of respect for other parents, I didn't want Dave and Alex to tell other children that it was all a lie. So, for the first years I said nothing and stepped aside as I watched other people telling my own children that they had to be good in order to get presents. (I really had to bite my tongue at this point.) They soon smelled a rat because I have never played that trick on them. The inevitable question came from Dave, when he was around five.
'Mummy, do you think there really is a Santa Claus?'
I thought I would break his heart if I said no. Instead I asked him what his thoughts were.
'I don't know,' he said, 'but we'll find out. This is what we'll do: On Christmas Day, don't you put any presents under the tree. When we get up, if there's nothing, that means there's no Santa and he's just a man in disguise. In that case, we'll go back to bed, pretend to be asleep, and you'll get up and put the presents under the tree.'
They reached their own conclusions regarding all the other stories too. In the Easter Bunny they didn't believe for even a second. Dave shocked his nana by saying, 'I know it's you who goes around hiding the chocolate eggs.' He still loves doing the treasure hunt, even though he doesn't like chocolate all that much.
When Alex had to have a tooth removed, Dave suggested we put it under the pillow to find out if there really is a tooth fairy. When they were both asleep, I hesitated before replacing the tooth with some money. In the morning they were beside themselves with excitement.
'It worked!' Dave exclaimed. 'There is a tooth fairy, I can't believe it!'
They were exuberant, but I felt horrible. It was the first time I had deceived my children and it didn't feel right at all. What's more, I felt as if I had interfered in their scientific experiment. So I confessed straightaway.
'That's no problem,' said Dave nonchalantly, 'we'll try again tonight. But this time don't do anything, ok, mummy?'
The next day there was no money, only the tooth, and they were both happy with the discovery.
'So now we know it's just another story,' Alex concluded.
From these experiences I learned that they can still enjoy the magic and excitement of Christmas, Easter and everything else without me having to lie to them, something that I don't feel comfortable with. I don't agree with people who say it is good for children to believe in this magical world that doesn't really exist. My kids enjoy reading stories and watching movies like everyone else, but they know what is real and what is not and their imagination goes wild all the same. I was told all those fibs when I was a child, and I vividly remember the summer day when my brother told me the truth. I was utterly disappointed at being lied to by my own parents. I would have preferred never to have known.
A couple of weeks ago I told Dave and Alex we were going to see some quokkas, the small half rat half kangaroo marsupials we had read about, which can be found only on Rottnest Island. Dave surprised me by saying that he didn't believe they really exist. I assured him that they do, I had seen them before, 'and you can even pat them; they're not afraid of humans, they get really close and even get into restaurants and shops, although they're not allowed.' He kept saying it was not true. I'm not sure why he didn't believe me. Maybe it's because he's been setting up pranks a lot lately, like placing a giant toy spider near me and yelling 'Spider!' to give me a fright and make me believe it's real (I pretend to fall for it, but we all know I'm just playing along.) So, I added, 'This is no joke. And have I ever lied to you before?'
I haven't, and I hope I never have to. The moment I start lying, they will start lying to me and that's when trust and positive communication break down.