the lies we tell

The tooth fairy is coming to our house. After seven years, the last two of which have seen virtually every other kid in his class part company with at least one of their pearly whites, my oldest son finally has a wobbler. We have been waiting a long time for this milestone. We have watched that terrible movie with Julie Andrews. There has been ample opportunity, in other words, to consider carefully how to present the existential identity of the sprite in question. Alas, I have decided to confirm that she is on her way.

It sounds trite, I know, everybody acknowledges the tooth fairy. But this is a noteworthy departure for our family. Oliver has been suspicious of the fanciful for as long as I can remember. When all of the other kids at Mommy-and-me were oohing and aahing over the alarmingly life-like toy dog squirming in the arms of the teacher, there was Oliver, aged two and a half, to break the spell: ‘But that’s not real!’. Silence. Then came the argument, aged three, he had with the daughter of a friend of ours involving the status of Santa Claus. It ended in tears, needless to say, and they weren’t his. The existence of Santa Claus is an easy one for uswe don’t celebrate Christmas – but you can bet I made sure that he was never the one to break that particular piece of news to an unsuspecting child again.

The first conversation we had about Santa Claus went something like this:

Mom, Santa Claus is coming to my nursery!

Oh, that sounds fun, who is he?

Well, he’s fat and has a white beard and wears a red suit and he brings lots of presents to everyone in the whole world.

Wow, that’s a lot of people. How does he do it?

He has reindeer. And a sled. I guess it must be pretty fast.

But how does he get into the people’s houses?

Through the chimney…(pause)…Do you think he can really fit through a chimney?

Do you?

No. Not if he’s so fat.

It is clear that Oliver is a realist by nature. I know this because the things that have the potential to send a little kid quivering behind the sofa – Darth Vader! The Joker! The Daleks! – have never given him a moment’s bother. Quite the opposite: he has sought them out with gusto. The darker the character’s backstory, it seemed, the more enticing it was for him. ‘Aren’t you frightened?’ we asked him as he begged, aged four, to see ‘The Dark Knight’. ‘Why should I be scared of something that isn’t real?’ came the reply, as if it were obvious. The logic might have been faultless, but he still wasn’t allowed to see the film.

It is also apparent from my part in the conversation that he is a realist because I have encouraged the tendency in him. This way of raising children is something I inherited from my own mother, who was never – and still isn’t – one to mince words. As soon as Oliver was old enough to ask those awkward and difficult questions, you know just the ones I mean, I fell naturally into a policy of truth. Partly because I believe introducing the truth – or a watered down version of it – earlier rather than later has inherent benefits such as normalizing some of the more disconcerting and/or needlessly embarrassing facts of life. And partly because I think that the actual explanation for a whole host of absurdities is usually the one that makes the most sense: a kind of Occam’s razor principle for dealing with the challenge of a kid’s boundless – and often stultifying – curiosity.

My policy of truth ranges from the scatological to the profound. I call a vagina a ‘vagina’ because all of the other expressions for it sound ridiculous to me (‘front bottom’!) and half of them have no bearing whatsoever to the part they are meant to describe (‘flower’!). You want to know what a tampon is, I’ll tell you. As long as the questions come, I will try to answer them as accurately as possible. Age is obviously a factor, but the sophistication of the query itself acts as a self-regulating force in this respect:

What’s this?

A tampon.

What’s it for?

It stops bleeding, like a band-aid.

Are you bleeding?

Yes, sometimes Mommies bleed, it’s totally natural.

Where are you bleeding?

From inside.

Inside where?

My vagina.

(Look of slight confusion) But are you hurt??

No, I’m just fine. Mommies bleed this way so that they can have a baby (exaggerated excitement)!

How do you have a baby?

Etc, etc.

Body parts and bathroom habits are one thing. Weightier questions about death and destruction and divorce and disease are quite another. I tend, however, to take the same tack here too, unless there are evident counter-indications. It’s not that I don’t sugarcoat from time to time or purposely blunt the harsh edges of reality. Of course I do: I don’t want to upset my children. Rather, it’s that I make every effort to avoid overt misinformation about the things that I consider important: things that might be problematic when they realize at some point down the line that they have been misinformed about them. Granted, there are arguments for waiting in the first place until further down that line to reveal, for example, that everyone does in fact die (usually, hopefully when they are very, very old!). But it is unproven whether the delay serves to soften the blow or to exacerbate it.

As with so much of parenting, a lot depends on the kid. I was lucky that my instincts as a mother dovetailed so smoothly with my first child’s personality. Had he been a different boy – a boy who went ashen with worry and sleeplessness from the fear that someone in his family would drop dead at any moment – I too might have done things differently. I see perfectly well, given a certain type of child, how one can discover a chink in even the most steadfast commitment to the truth.

For the tooth fairy, I am willing to compromise my own commitment here. She doesn’t count as one of the ‘important’ things and, as such, she is a chance for both Oliver and me to take a break from being so damn literal. This is going to be fun, I think to myself, as I watch him at the bathroom sink, gently probing the bottom of his mouth. ‘Is the tooth fairy coming?’ I egg him on, slightly excited at the prospect of a joint foray into the world of make-believe. ‘Maybe,’ he says, with a shrug. And then a few seconds later: ‘I’ll find out soon enough. I’m not going to tell you when I lose it: let’s see if anything turns up under my pillow.’ Perhaps the tooth fairy won’t be visiting our house after all.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “the lies we tell

  1. Philippa

    A prescient post, as this week has seen the ninth visit of the Tooth Fairy to our house, for the first time swapping dollars for dentine originating from my daughter rather than my son. And with Hallowe’en just passed and Christmas on the way, it’s a fascinating time to observe the belief systems of both adults and children. My offspring seem to have a pick’n’mix attitude to what’s real and what isn’t, which I have been happy simply to play along with. Santa, yes. Tooth Fairy, yes (actually we subscribe to the Parking Fairy and the Dishwashing Fairy too, but that’s a whole other discussion). Witches and ghosts, no, apparently not real, just for stories and dress-ups.

    I guess whatever your personal views, these things are strong cultural currency among the infant community, and there is a social cost arising from a decision not to buy into any of it. Not only that, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a purpose to the subterfuge. My kids are now 6 and 8, and I suspect that this will be the last Christmas that the magic remains unchallenged. For me, the impending dissolution of belief is in some ways a rite of passage. It teaches children some essential things–that fantasy can be a lot of fun, but it’s still just fantasy; that adults can collude and lie, sometimes in the nicest possible way; but perhaps most importantly that it’s okay to find out that things are not quite the way you might have hoped and thought or been told that they were, that this is a part of growing up and thinking for yourself a bit more. Now you can join the club where you can help to preserve the magic for the little ones, as was done for you. It’s the safest way, if you like, to discover that the world doesn’t actually fall apart when you find that you’ve been wrong all along about something. Seems like a core life skill, right?

  2. Linzi

    I just got round to reading this one – and all I can say is a totally agree! As someone who ‘doesn’t do’ Santa, I often get looks of incredulity and shock, as if must have something wrong with me, or my poor children, how they are missing out…. ! It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part – when it came to that first Christmas, I just couldn’t do it – I couldn’t tell one year old Zoe such a bit untruth. The words just wouldn’t come. So I have never told them ‘there is no Santa’, but left enough gaps to let them work it out pretty much for themselves. It’s often awkward – and most people think I’m a bit odd, but I am also a firm believer in the truth as far a possible. We instill in our children the importance of telling the truth – I must lead by example.

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