Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are mythological creatures many of us believe in as children. We think of them as real and our parents encourage this belief. At some point, someone busts the bubble and a child might approach a parent: “Is it true there’s no such thing as (choose one: Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny)?”
This creates a dilemma for the parent. Should the parent come clean? How will the child feel on learning the truth? How will the parent feel to watch the child wrestling with the death of strong-held childhood beliefs?
These questions lead to more questions: Is the belief in mythological characters like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny beneficial to children? Does it harm a child to be misled by his own parents, even if the misleading information was meant kindly? Should parents continue or discontinue this practice?
Parenting coach Barbara Harvey doesn’t think that the focus on these mythical creatures is all bad, but she does think the practice of encouraging belief in make-believe figures sets children up for disappointment and disillusionment. “I encourage parents to tell their children about the origins of these fictional characters and to talk about how the stories have become bigger than life. Then it becomes fun to examine: ‘Okay, what’s going down with the Easter Bunny at Easter? Let’s look around and see how the Easter Bunny has become bigger than life.’
Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: The Magic
“This way kids still get to enjoy the magic and the wonder of these characters without having to believe that they actually exist,” says Harvey, who is the executive director of Parents, Teachers, and Advocates, a parent development group in Atlanta, GA.
Teaching kids to believe in these creatures is, on the other hand, teaching them lies. What happens to the trust a child has in a parent when the lie is discovered? Wouldn’t it be only natural for a child to feel betrayed on learning the truth? Is it worse when the child hears the truth from a friend, and discovers his own parents have lied to him?
And what about the child who tells the friend that his mother told him that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny are real creatures, and his mother never lies—only to discover that his mother has, indeed, lied.
And what is the effect of all this when you’ve never lied to your child about anything except for the “lies” about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny?
Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Benign Practice?
Do these questions show us that the subject of mythological creatures is more complicated that anyone might have supposed? Or is this just a lot of fuss and bother over the perpetuation of a belief in make-believe characters—something most of us think of as a benign practice, harmless. Part of childhood.
But is it? Must it be this way?
Well, according to Dr. Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent, the answer is both yes and no. “Parents should never lie to their children about anything. However, when it comes to myths like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, many parents want to carry on the tradition of fun by nurturing a gentle belief in these myths when their kids are young.
“Usually, by age 7 or 8 years, most children wonder out loud and ask their Mommy or Daddy if Santa is real. It’s up to the parent at that point to respond honestly and openly by saying, ‘When I was a child, my parents thought it was a fun part of Christmas to teach us about the myth of Santa Claus. I loved it so much that I decided to share those teachings with my children. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on this family tradition or do Christmas in your own special way,’” says Walfish, who serves as a regular expert on The Doctors, on CBS TV, in her capacity as a child psychologist.
Despite the advice of experts like Harvey and Walfish, there isn’t much science to guide us in understanding what we should do as parents going forward. The research tells us that most kids figure out the truth by age 7 or 8. The kids generally have a positive reaction to learning these characters aren’t real. It is the parents who report feeling sad when their children stop believing in Santa Claus.
Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Part of the Process
In spite of this scientific evidence that kids aren’t sad or damaged by the truth, at least one expert disagrees, believing sadness and disappointment to be part of the process. “When your child learns that there is no Santa Claus or Easter bunny, it is certainly sad for him or her and as parents, we need to be sure to validate their disappointment,” says Child and Adult Therapist Courtney Rodrigue. Rodrigue suggests that children, on learning the truth, be enlisted to keep the secret from others, “It is also helpful to tell your child that now he/she knows there is no Santa Claus (or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy) you need their help to keep this special secret so their younger siblings or cousins can enjoy the magic of believing. Parents should emphasize that although there is no magic man in a red suit, this doesn’t mean there is no magic to the holiday spirit,” says Rodrigue.
Interestingly, one stand-out scientific finding is that Jewish children are less likely to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy than Christian children, even when their parents encourage such belief. What makes Jewish children impervious to the hype? Could it be the emphasis of the Jewish religion on Old Testament beliefs? The Ten Commandments?
Perhaps. Child Psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character, Dr. Elizabeth Berger, however, thinks children should be directed to share the beliefs of their peers, whatever these might be. Berger reminds concerned parents that, “Adjusting the nature of reality to the child’s developmental level is one of the main missions of parenthood. This involves adjusting the nature of reality for one’s child to the social reality of the community in which the parent has chosen to raise the child.
“In practical terms, this means editing the brutal truth about many matters so that the mind of a small child–a toddler or 6-year-old–can understand them. All parents do this, in order to spare small children overwhelming experiences which are part of an adult reality–terrible things on the news or painful events among one’s friends, neighbors, or family. We do a great deal to ‘spare’ our small children many realities and this effort is in their best interest.
Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: Joyful Magic?
“Likewise, it is not harmful to encourage a small amount of joyful magic in a child’s experience, such as belief in imaginary creatures who single out the child for special events such as the Tooth Fairy. In our communities today, many children share these fantasy beliefs as part of special times. Encouraging your child to burst these innocent balloons which are enjoyed by other kids on the playground does not help the child get along with others in a comfortable way. It sets your child up as a nay-sayer and kill-joy,” says Berger.
That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t prepare a child to realize the truth, which according to Berger is an inevitable part of growing up. “It is important that parents are empathic in easing along the transition to realistic thinking which most children do naturally as part of their growing intellectual depth and their awareness of peer attitudes. Few ten-years-olds believe in the Tooth Fairy, regardless of what parents do or say. Once a child wants to penetrate the fantasy and confront the parent with the truth, it is a good idea to congratulate the child on this insight and to validate the development of more complex understanding. You can always explain that these silly beliefs are for littler kids, and commend the child on his or her maturity,” says Berger.
Experts urge us to be empathetic to children who have just found out the truth about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Isn’t it odd then that research describes children as having a positive response to finding out their parents have been lying to them their entire lives? It seems children see discovering the truth as a rite of passage. It means they’ve crossed the line and become big boys and girls, and are little babies no longer. They now know something small children don’t know. It makes them superior in their own eyes, more grown up, more knowledgeable.
Why are the parents sad when their children learn the truth? There’s something about the fantasy world of small children that is beautiful and moving, compared to the harshness of everyday reality. We like the idea that babies live in a sweet, pink world, where everything is soft and friendly. Growing up also means a loss of closeness to our children in some ways, because they no longer need to depend upon us—their parents—in quite the same way. They don’t need us.
That is bittersweet.
Not all of us are sad when our children begin to figure it out. David Gerecht was proud as punch when his six-year-old asked him what the Tooth Fairy does with all those teeth. Children, meanwhile, aren’t always happy to be clued in. “I remember getting totally upset at age 6 when I realized that the Tooth Mice (in my family it was Mice) were an invention of my parents,” says the now middle-aged Miriam Kresh.
Do some parents find other ways to mark milestone events such as losing teeth? Shira Daniel says her husband, a dentist, told the kids that an angel gives the teeth away to new children. But even this attempt was foiled by discovery. “I think they bought it but at one point knew it was their father,” says Daniel.
The father in-law of Chana Roberts called himself the Tooth Fairy’s “agent.” “Kids gave him their teeth and he gave them money. [My own children] don’t have a Tooth Fairy. I just said I want to put the first teeth with the first pair of shoes, because sometimes mommies like to do that kind of thing,” says Roberts.
Some parents feel that it is the function of a child’s mind to fantasize, with or without our input. We don’t need to tell them about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny in order for them to invent their own fantastical worlds and the creatures that inhabit them. They dream this way despite us.
Such parents may point to children at play as illustrating this idea. They are endlessly creative at play.
Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny: White Lie?
These parents believe it is better to draw the line in the sand for their children, when it comes to the difference between truth and make-believe. They say that by being keepers of the truth, their children can use them as trustworthy guides for distinguishing fact from fantasy. These parents believe that in remaining truthful, they deepen the bonds they have with their children who will never discover they have been lied to, betrayed, even in the matter of the “white lie” of make-believe characters such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny.
These parents may feel that the only people who stand to lose from truth-telling are the marketers who plug these creatures at holiday time to make their wares more attractive to youngsters and their parents.
But Dr. Elizabeth Berger still sees the importance of maintaining the ruse. “The world of the small child is full of magic and unreality, and should be. Each small child should feel like ‘the best little girl or boy’ in the world and regard the Mom and Dad as the best Mom and Dad ever, and the local community as the best place on earth. The recognition of ordinariness comes gradually and later.”
Do you think belief in make-believe characters is no big deal?
Did you decide not to encourage your children to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny?