Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Santa Question, Revisited

When your kid believes in Santa, how do you deal with her inevitable encounters with the testimony of doubters and disbelievers?

Yesterday at school, a mom approached me and asked if M. Peevie still believed in Santa Claus. I told her no.

"She's been telling the little kids that Santa's not real," Mom of Little Kid (MLK) said.

"Oh," I said, feeling a little, but not a lot, guilty. "She shouldn't do that."

"Yes, I know," MLK said. "I thought I'd talk to you about it since I saw you here." And what? And then I can cast my forgetting spell so that the younger kids will have no memory of what she told them? And then I can tell M. Peevie (again) to be very careful not to talk about her mature belief system in front of the still-deluded?

MLK continued, "Yeah, my kids were telling me that a big kid at school was going around saying that Santa wasn't real, so we got the yearbook out and went through all the pictures to see who it was, and they pointed to M. Peevie."

Sooooo, you didn't just happen to see me and decide to have a little conversation about it; in fact, you spent time doing research to figure out which ill-mannered child had crossed the Santa boundary, planning to accost the bad parent who obviously neglected her parental duty to strictly instruct M. Peevie to keep the Santa Secret on penalty of...of...of something really bad.

OK, I'm probably overthinking this. But still. Instead of talking to me about my daughter's big mouth, shouldn't you be talking to your child, who will continue to encounter opinions, stories, and data that contradict her fond, innocent fantasy? Isn't it part of your job as her parent to help her make sense of her world? Surely M. Peevie isn't the only third-grader who has made the intellectual transition to reluctant realism.

Here's the real kicker: when I talked to M. Peevie, and asked her to please use discretion about her Santa skepticism around the younger kids, she told me that one of the playground moms had already had that same conversation with her. Wait, what? Really? This bugged me more than MLK having her kids pick M. Peevie out of a grade-school line-up. I asked her to tell me what happened.

"The little kids were talking about Santa," M. Peevie said. "Playground Kid asked me if I believed in Santa."

"What did you say, M.?" I asked.

"I said, 'No, I don't believe in Santa because he's not real'," she said simply. "And then Playground Mom talked to me and told me I shouldn't say that."

"What else did she say?" I asked, irritated. "Did she think you should lie to Playground Kid?"

"No," M. Peevie said. "She told me what I could say instead of saying that Santa wasn't real."

"Like what?" I asked.

"I can't remember," M. Peevie said. And this is exactly the reason that adults should not put it on a nine-year-old to protect their children's Santa-believing innocence: because she's been taught to tell the truth. Even though she doesn't exactly have to lie to avoid telling the painful truth, she would have to behave, think, and respond in a way that is beyond the mental and emotional capacity of many adults, let alone a third-grader, in order to avoid giving a direct and truthful answer. It's not fair to her.

Ironically, on the way home from school today, A. Peevie, who just turned 12, asked me if Santa was real.

"What do you think, A.?" I dissimulated, as I usually do when confronted with direct questions about the existence of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and any other childhood larger-than-life fantasy figures. In fact, it's exactly what I did last year when he asked.

A. Peevie did not bite. "I don't know, Mom," he said. "That's why I'm asking you."

"He's not really real," M. Peevie asserted, and A. Peevie quickly and peevedly cut her off: "I'm not asking you! I'm asking mom."

"Well, A.," I said slowly. "I like to believe in Santa."

"That's not really an answer, mom," A. Peevie observed accurately. "Is he real, or not?"

"Hmm," I said, stalling for time. "Well, don't you think you're kind of Santa, when you give a gift to someone?"

"Um, no," he said. "No, I do not think I'm Santa. Is he real?"

"A.," I said, "Do you really want to know the truth?"

"Yes," he said, sadly, "Even though I think I already do."

"Yeah, I think you already do, too," I said. "But in a way, he's real, because he's an idea, a symbol of giving and generosity. He reminds us that God gave us the best gift of all, Jesus."

"So he's not real," A. Peevie concluded, and sighed a huge sigh of sorrow.

"Does that make you sad, A?" I asked.

He slumped in his seat and looked out the car window at the twinkling holiday lights flashing by. "Yes," he said; and then he was quiet the rest of the way home.

M. Peevie chimed in again, remembering our conversation about The Santa Question from a year ago. "When mommy told me that Santa wasn't real, I cried and cried," she said.



Kristen said...

Aaaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhh!!! I have had the same situation arise after Abi was on a playdate with a little girl this summer. I felt, similarly, the pressure to feel guilty and reprimand my child for-what? For telling the truth???!!! Seriously, I still cannot believe it, and that conversation happened with the mother in a family who were believers. I'm so annoyed that people like that can't think through this issue a bit more clearly. Yes, I know I'm being a bit uncharitable. I could go on and on. But maybe I'll just send her a link to your post instead:-)

Anonymous said...

Let's look at this another way. Being a kid is diffrent now than how it was when we were young. It seems to me believeing in Santa and the tooth Fairy are one of the few things that is still the same. We often lament here about walking to school ourselves, mowing the lawn, playing for hours outside and wonder what has changed, how come things are so different for our kids than they were for us? Maybe these moms want their kids to have that for a bit longer. It is a "secret" of childhood, not a lie. Yes maybe people did not handle it the right way, but I get annoyed with saying that it is a lie. If a child is old enough to understand there is no Santa, then they should be old enough to help keep the secret for others. So is it an issue of truth vs lying or holding one of the few secrets of childhood close to your heart and family???

E. Peevie said...

Anon, I agree with you that allowing our kids to believe in Santa is not equivalent to lying to them. I'm actually quite sad that my kids have moved on from these harmless and at times beautiful childhood myths--and especially that M. Peevie did it on her own, at such a young age.

But I do think it's asking a bit much to expect a nine-year-old to understand the difference between dissimulation and lying.

The fact is, two hours after Playground Mom gave M. Peevie a script to help her know how to answer when kids asked her about Santa, she couldn't remember what she was told. Apparently she IS too young to be able to keep the secret for others.

The moms who talked to me and MP were not harsh or inappropriate, just, IMHO, misguided. It's not a truth v. lying issue, it's a child development issue.

Anonymous said...

We've always treated Santa as a fun make-believe story, like Superman or Spiderman or whatever. No big deal, no letdown. Worked for us.

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