Thursday, December 16, 2010

To believe or not to believe....

Each year around this time, I would have a few parents wander into the preschool and sit down to ask me, "How can I tell my child Santa Claus is real when I don't believe in lying to my child."

I always appreciated this type of question because to me it meant that as parents they were questioning the choices they made each and every day on behalf of their children.
I personally believe that the mark of a "good" or effective parent is one who questions even the most seemingly benign things in society and says, "is this really right for me, my child, or our family?"
So it is interesting that I find myself asking myself the same question as the holidays approach. The same question I answered year after year quite confidently.

I value my relationship with my son and telling the truth is the cornerstone of any relationship, I truly believe that. But I also want him to develop his own ideas about the world, what he believes in, etc... without giving him what I believe is fact for me (although I do secretly hope he adopts many of our family values, like say buying organic and forgoing antiperspirant :)).

So what did I tell those parents for so many years?
One of the things that was not understood by many of them is that their 2 year old will not tromp up to them and demand to know if Santa Claus is real. In fact many young children (0-7 years old) will create their own fantasies that are real to them and adopt those of society even without our help. The reason for this is that young children live in a fantasy and imaginative realm. They are not capable of abstract thought yet, you know, the kind that makes you question ideas and think about them from many different points of view. The kind that helps you distinguish between fantasy and reality.

This is why I never believed in teaching religion and in particular God to young children. It is the reason television is so harmful at this age also. I do believe you should pass on the traditions of your family even religious ones if that is of importance to you, but to expect a young child to be able to understand anything other than the routine of celebrations and yearly rhythms attached to these religions is expecting way to much of such a young person and frankly, it will not happen.

But back to St. Nick... forming what I want for my family has been a bit of a challenge. There are of course some things that I believe are absolutely wrong when it comes to our American traditions and therefore are easy for me to leave out of my child's life. Those include:

1. Linking Santa Claus or any being real or fantastical (including God) to a big brother is watching you mentality. Some of the songs this time of year bug the hell out of me. You better watch out! You better not cry! Are you freakin kidding me? My child can cry whenever he needs to thank you very much and it will not change our expressions of love (including gift giving) towards him one teeny bit. It is called UNconditonal love for a reason.
Oh, and have you seen this? A spy in your home meant to teach your children something about behaving in ways that are not a pain in the ass to the parent? No thank you. I could go on about this forever, but let me just say one thing. I want my child to act in ways that are altruistic, kind, truthful, and loving because he knows it is the right thing to do and because of the effects of his actions on OTHER people. All this teaches is that it is important to make sure you are not caught because all that matters is what happens to ME and what I might not get if I do get caught.
So when the presents have been handed out, then who cares if I beat my little sister up the other 11 months out of the year? Although I am sure parents who use the elf also have many other form of sugar coated control in their bag of tricks for the rest of the year.
These tricks are manipulation and a really bad choice when choosing building blocks to a long term trusting relationship with your child. If you don't trust me, read more about it here and do some research on behaviorism, it will knock your socks off.

2. I really don't believe in teaching my child that the way Americans do things is the only way the world believes. For example Santa supposedly delivers presents to children all over the world who are waiting for him. There is even a Santa tracker on the computer for which you can see which country he is in on Christmas Eve (don't get me started on the computer and young children thing) BUT, not every country celebrates Christmas AND those who do celebrate St. Nick in one form or another do not all celebrate him on December 24th and 25th. In Germany for example, St. Nicholas day early in December is a bigger deal with shoes being left out for goodies to appear. Even certain Christians in our country have a problem with celebrating the birth of Christ in December when many believe it has been proven he was born in the summer.

3. With any gift giving holiday, the holiday will not be all about getting stuff in our family. It will about memories and time spent making things. We will give very few purchased items, we will spend a good deal of time passing on our values of handmade, eco-friendly practices with gift giving and holidays. Recycled, homemade, wooden, fair trade, and non commercial will be at the top of our thoughts. When our son was just born, we sent a very detailed gift letter to our closest friends and family. I will gladly share it with anyone interested since many have asked, but be prepared, it is a single spaced detailed rant :). It has helped us tremendously to pass on our values with regards to raising our child.

Now all that being said, I do not also believe it is the adult's right to thrust the realities of the adult non fantasy world onto such little children. Children have something we have all lost as adults. The see magic in everything. Each day is filled with wonder and awe and that should be preserved as long as they need it to be.

So in writing this I have come to some conclusions about our family and how I would prefer to celebrate this holiday each year.

1. One gift will be put out unwrapped on Christmas morning. I promise you, my young child will not ask who it is from.

2. No gifts will have tags that say "from Santa".

3. We will not take our child to see Santa Claus unless he asks us too and even then, we will have to talk first. I really have never understood why we force this scary man on the very youngest children. How many of you have that screaming child on Santa's lap photo? I wish I had mine to show you. Not to mention, going to see Santa is all about the getting and he usually asks the question, "have you been good this year?" To that I say, "bah humbug", my child is good by nature of being a person. Was he a pain in the butt from time to time? Sure, we all are, but that will not affect how we treat him.

4. We will read books about Christmas including ones like The Night before Christmas (although I draw the line at any book that focuses so much on getting stuff or being "good" vs. "bad"). There is amazing literature out there and poems and songs that create memories. I don't want my child to miss out on any of these. Harvey Slumfenburger's Christmas Present by John Burningham being one of the most amazing for sure although as my mentor Bev Bos says, "it should be read in July and all year long too". Without too much digress, this is a book about going to the ends of the Earth for another person, it is not preachy, and who couldn't say Harvey Slumfenburger a thousand times and not smile :)!
It will for sure be part of our traditions.

5. I will not lie to my child. If he asks me who bought a specific present, I will tell him the truth to the best of my ability. If he asks me if I believe in Santa Claus, fairies, the Easter Bunny, etc... I will say yes, I believe in their spirits. And when the time comes for him to ask us if Santa Claus is real, I will respond in the exact way I told each of my parents in the preschool to respond:

"What do you think?"

Isn't that what parenting is about anyway; creating an environment where children feel safe to tell you their thoughts and feelings? I want that for all children.

So tell me your thoughts, how do you navigate this road with your children?


  1. When I was six or seven, I asked my mom if Santa was real. They told us the myth of Santa Claus, just as they told us about St. Nick and Black Pete, about the Tooth Fairy, about the Easter Bunny, about the prophet Elijah, about Paul Bunyan, about Cinderella...but Santa was the first one I asked about. A kid in school had told me Santa wasn't real, but I knew in my heart of hearts that he was. Because DUH, he had to be. I heard the jingle bells of his sleigh every Christmas Eve before I got in bed. I set out cookies and carrots and woke up the next morning to crumbs. And every adult I knew seemed to think he existed. They were always talking about him like he did. So I knew that kid was wrong.

    Imagine my shock, and then my horror, when my mother told me no. The spirit that Santa Claus embodies is real, she said, but the man most people think the myth is based on died a long long time ago.

    I was crushed. For years, I felt very passionately that she had made the wrong decision, that in telling me the truth she had violated some innate childhood right to the Santa Claus (and all other tall tales) myth, like she had taken away a piece of my youth and innocence by enlightening me too early. I felt like when she told me the truth, she stripped me of my sense of magic, she introduced me to the idea that everybody lied, and she encouraged me to continue lying to my sisters. A white lie, she called it.

    But my mom told me the truth because when she was a kid and she asked her mom the same question, her mom told her yes. When she eventually found out the truth, my mom was devastated that her parents had continued lying to her all those years after she'd given them the option of stopping.

    Donald and I have decided to tell Charlotte about Santa Claus...and all the rest of it...but from a different standpoint. Most holiday stuff doesn't bother me, including conditional elf-on-a-shelf type customs. But what does bother me is that you cannot talk about Santa Claus as fact without eventually encountering the concept of lying. So we've decided to tell Charlotte up front that Santa Claus is the embodiment of holiday ideals. Some people believe in him and other people don't and she can make up her own mind every year, but we believe that what Santa represents matters more than whether or not a fat man actually squeezes down chimneys on Christmas Eve. When she's younger, I'm sure that will translate into her belief to some extent in the fantasy of Santa Claus, but our hope is that as she grows older she will find that we never lie to her or any future siblings about it and that we instead encourage them to think (and fantasize) independently.

    We'll see. It probably won't work as well as I think it will lol!

  2. I am in exactly the same boat Sarah. So I assume you wont be eating cookies after bed time?

  3. except for the conditional elf part Sarah, this bothers me more than eating cookies after bedtime.

  4. Hmm. I honestly hadn't really thought of it. We've got a few years to work out specific details about things like that, but I don't think we'll do it. But it's just like the elf thing - it doesn't bother me personally so if my parents wanted to do it at their house I'd be fine with it. I don't want to take away from other people sharing holiday traditions with Charlotte, I just want to ensure that when she comes to us with questions we're honest with her and we never give her any reason to believe that we weren't honest with her from the get-go. We might say that things just work differently at her grandparents' house, for example.

    Actually, my closest friend growing up? Her family has an elf tradition you'd probably like. Or at least like more than the shelf elf. It still incorporates belief in the fantastic, but at least it's a little more positive. Every year, their home is visited by an elf named Bernard. Bernard writes each of the kids a letter reminding them about the truth of Christmas spirit as compared to Santa Claus and discussing with them the ways in which they have kept the holiday spirit alive during the year: by baking cookies for the neighbor when he was ill, by giving their favorite toy to a kid in need, by helping their dad work on the house when they wanted to play with their friends, etc. Bernard also brings little trinkets and gives them little puzzles to solve and has little history trivia about how various winter holidays are celebrated in other places or have been in other times. And he gives them tasks to complete. So the first time he visits, their task might be to make the world more beautiful so they might do a trail clean-up. The second time, their task might be to decorate the house. Etc.

  5. I have been thinking about this issue since last Christmas. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this topic! I am not a religious person, and dislike the focus on materialism. We acknowledge Santa, but don't say anything about him bringing presents. I haven't bought presents for my kids for Christmas, ever. They already get gifts from grandparents, etc.

    Not sure how it will play out next year with a 4 year old?? Plus, family and friends are always asking kids what they asked Santa for, and all that.

    Side note: my daughter's bday is next week, and instead of a party with cake and gifts, we are 'sponsoring' a local artist performance at our library. sort of a party open to all. i love this idea of sharing joy with our community.

  6. Hello! I am due with my first child in 5 days (oh my goodness!) and I was wondering if you would be okay with emailing me a copy of the gift-giving letter that you shared with your family and friends when your son was born. We are already having problems with people trying to give us loads of things that we don't need or want and they just don't seem willing to listen to us! Maybe taking a look at your "rant" would help us come up with a way to get it across to people.

    My email is missjoules(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.