Two 5 year old children were playing on the playground. One said, “The tooth fairy came to my house and gave my brother money.”
“My mommy says the tooth fairy isn’t real,” said the other.
“My daddy said the tooth fairy is real and he knows everything.”
It is a familiar scene to those of us who work with young children. Toddlers and preschoolers find it difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They accept that Santa, the tooth fairy and mystical creatures like unicorns are real. They have vivid imaginations and it is fun for us to watch the wonder on their faces when life is full of magic. My family is Jewish so we do not celebrate Christmas. I remember my youngest sister telling a friend that Santa flies over our house and doesn’t come in because we have Chanukah, not Christmas. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe Santa could exist. He simply didn’t come to us. Children easily accept fantasies even when they come from stories that don’t apply to them.
Then, one day, children begin to question. Sometimes another child will challenge their beliefs. Other times, they realize that the stories they have been told are just improbable. Eventually every parent will face the day when their children ask, “Is this real?” As an educator, I always tell children who ask about personal beliefs that they need to talk to their parents about it. I would never contradict what a parent tells their child about belief. I always hope that the parents carefully consider the question before answering. When a child says, “Is this real?” adults need to acknowledge that…
Your children are seeking truth and will only do that when they have developed the capacity to begin to distinguish between real and not real. Parents want to keep fairy tales going because we remember childhood as full of imagination & magic and we want life to be fun for our children. Your child, however, has not asked you to make sure the tooth fairy is real. Your child has asked you for the truth. Your child can now understand that things can be real or not. A child who does not understand that there is a difference between reality and fantasy will not question it. Usually, we see the ability and desire to distinguish fact from fiction develop between the ages of 4-8 years old. Like all else, each child develops this insight at his/her own rate.
While a child may be disappointed to hear the truth, finding out that their parents have lied to a direct question is far more hurtful. Our young children need to know that they are right to trust us. Trust and respect are earned. That holds true for both adults and children. When I was a young girl, I watched a TV show during which the host would wish a happy birthday to children by name. Each year on my birthday, my mother and I would watch the show and, as if by magic, the host would say, “Cindy is having a special day today.” It was so exciting! I was about 7 years old and could read when I saw my mother writing a note to the show about my younger sister’s birthday. I asked my mother why she was doing that. She said, “This is how they know when your birthday is – I write to them.” I was crushed. I remember it distinctly so many years later. I couldn’t believe my mother sat with me and pretended it was all magic. I was upset that she never told me. Much to her credit, my mother waited for the direct question and answered it honestly. I realize that by telling me the truth when I asked and not hiding it, my mother did what she has always done. My mother has never lied to me. To this day, I can always count on her for the absolute truth. I wanted the same trust with my own children and have never lied to them either. I did, however…
Know that we can give fantasies their right place in the world of imagination. The fantastical stories of childhood do not have to disappear. Children asking about Santa Claus can be told the story of the real St. Nicholas. You can explain to them that Santa is about the joy of giving and make tagging gifts from Santa a game. It is fun to get and give anonymous gifts. Children who ask about creatures like unicorns can be told that they don’t really exist but are fun to imagine and have as part of stories about make-believe places and times. You can sit with your children and imagine other creatures as you make up stories about them. Imagination and pretend – they don’t stop and now the things they thought were real can be part of their play. We need to make sure that as our children move these beliefs into the realm of imaginary play that they know…
Other parents may not appreciate your children sharing the truth with theirs. Children should know that not all of their friends, siblings, cousins or classmates are ready to know the truth. Explain that other children will ask their parents when they are ready and there is no need to share the news. It is acceptable for them to begin to learn that some conversations are for public consumption and others should remain private.
Having written all this, I will admit that if my 16 and 20 year old still had baby teeth, I would sneak in at night to put money under their pillows. I treasure the memories of being their tooth fairy – even the memories of forgetting and trying to sneak the money under the pillow in the morning. I am proud of who they have become while I miss those little boys full of imagination. I am grateful that the truth didn’t stifle their creativity and I wonder if those fantasies of childhood just become their ability to have spiritual beliefs.
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Copyright 2013 © Cindy Terebush
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