Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Santa Situation

Multiple Choice Time

When you tell your kid that Santa is real, is it:

A lie?

The gift of magic?

Just pretend?

About a week ago, a mother posted to the ParkSlopeParents listserv with the subject heading, “Pretending Santa is Real?” and she asked, basically, if there was a way to allow your kids to believe in Santa without lying to them.

Parents today don’t like to lie to kids. Me included. I am a huge believer in straight-shooting when it comes to dealing with my kids. If we’re going to the doctor and my son asks me, in tears, “Am I going to have a shot?” I never say “No” if I know the answer is “Yes,” even though that would be easier. This may not sound like much to you but its notable because I am, in general, kind of a liar, I’m not pathological or anything. I just am not a terribly honest person, like my I-cannot-tell-a-lie-‘twas-I-who-cut-down-the-cherry-tree of a husband. What can I tell you? I learned to lie from my parents.

They didn’t deceive me about anything terribly important, but they did constantly put forth flimsy untruths for the sale of convenience. If they wanted me to try some food I didn’t like, they’d tell me it was something I did like. Here’s a piece of watermelon. Haha! It was a tomato! Gotcha. Whenever they didn’t want me to partake of something – whether it was a gumball machine, a sandbox or a kiddie ride – the thing would be “broken,” despite the fact that it would mysteriously work for other children. And stores never had my (very common) size in any of the brand-name shoes I coveted, though they always had an extensive selection in the knock-offs for half the price. So amidst all these little fictions, asserting that Santa was a man of flesh and blood was totally unobjectionable.

But modern parents, like myself, try at all costs to tell the truth. There are, of course, evasions. I won’t say “Yes you’re getting a shot, maybe a few, and it’s gonna hurt like hell, so brace yourself.” Instead I said, “I’m not sure.” But I try, even then, adhere closely to the spirit of truth.

Which brings us to Santa. For the past few months, my worrywart of a son has been asking David and I constantly if all manner of things -- some fantasy, some not, most scary – are real. Witches, zombies, ghosts, twisters, Jonah in the whale, people who kidnap children, man-eating lions, Martians. I try to answer as honestly as I can while assuaging his worry. (Martians: no. Witches: no. Ghosts: in a good way. Twisters: avoid the Midwest.)

So, considering his unflagging pursuit of truth, it seemed likely that Primo would pop the big Santa question this season. David and I wanted to be prepared.

“I don’t think I can tell him that Santa is real when he’s not,” I said.

“Who said Santa isn’t real?” David replied.

“Are you joking?” I said.

“No,” he continued, “I believe in Santa.”

I gave him a “cut the bullshit, the kids are asleep already” look.

“I do,” he said, “The idea of Santa is real for me, and that’s what I will tell him.”

Man, sometimes those dads really pull it out in the clutch. I thought that was a brilliant response. I DO believe in Santa, even though I know there’s no beneficent overweight long-haired stranger sliding down my non-exisitent chimney.

So I was prepared to tow the “Mommy believes in Santa,” line. But the amazing thing is, although he’s asked a dozen times a day if other fantastical things are real – manticores, fiends, two-headed monsters – he has not once inquired about the veracity of Santa. He’s no dummy. He just chooses to believe.

The people who replied to the ParkSlopeParents post had all sorts of interesting perspectives. The majority said they have no qualms about the Santa myth, because allowing them to have this magic in their lives when they’re young enough to really believe is a gift. A bunch of people said they were really devastated when they found out Santa wasn’t real, that they felt they’d been lied to by their parents so they now tell their kids the story of Santa but clarify that its not real, just a beautiful, magical story. A few people mentioned the difficulty of raising kids who don’t celebrate Christmas and thus know that Santa isn’t real but are treated like heathen killjoys if they leak the news to their Santa-believing friends. It was a really interesting discussion.

What about you? What have you told (or not told) your kids about Santa? Do you feel like it’s a lie, or a myth or just magical realism? And for parents of the older kids, when can I expect my son’s run of Santa faith to end?