Of magic and mythology: Reality-based parenting


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“Mummy, what are ‘gods’?”.

I was caught a little by surprise, but I think we did ok in the end. After a moment’s thought, I explained that they were figures invented by people. That different human civilisations share stories about pretend “gods” who have all sorts of different powers – stuff like creating living things and planets, knowing everything in the world, super-strength, and magical deeds. His brow furrowed. He took a moment too, then said “Ohhhh! Sorta like in my Mythical Beasts game!”

Just now, a few days after the question, I asked him if he remembered what “gods” are. He said “Yep! Gods live inside volcanoes, and they can beat everyone.” Close enough, I reckon.

So. December is upon us. I can’t be the only one who grows weary of hearing these frequently whimpered whines about chimney-fairy fakery around this time:

  • “Let them be kids for as long as they can.”
  • “Where’s the joy and magic of childhood?”
  • “You’ve got to instil some wonder into them!”
  • “There’s more to the world than cold, hard truth.”
  • “My parents told me Santa was real, and I turned out just fine.”

Somehow, we seem to be finding a whole lot of wonder in the real world. Children don’t need us to create wonder. They come with it ready-installed, from the moment they open their eyes and look around. All we have to do is not force it out of them.

The lad’s face lights up with wonder and joy when he comes face to face with an orang-utan, watches a seedling unfurl and shoot up up, finds animal shapes in cloud formations, collects treasure troves of stones and weed-flowers and coloured leaves, or succeeds in turning a somersault or kicking a goal.

Books extend and enlarge on that wonder. Between the pages we have travelled to the bottom of the ocean, witnessed erupting volcanoes and the Big Bang, roamed the frozen Arctic, tramped through dense rainforests[1] teeming with life, bounced on the moon, zoomed into the inner worlds of anatomy and cells, explored medieval castles and escaped from fierce prehistoric creatures. We have visited fantastic worlds with dragons, pirate dinosaurs, weird monsters, teleporting wardrobes, magical chocolate factories, and mythical beasts. And he knows the difference. As I write, he is drawing a Book of Monsters[2] to give his kindergarten teacher at the end of the year. He is dictating to me the blurb to go with the drawing on each page – and most of his dictations conclude with “It’s a good thing it doesn’t ezzist.” It seems sometimes reality can be reassuring.

So why, exactly, does our boy require more “wonder” in the form of a contrived fib about a guy in a red polyester suit and pleather boots? In what way are we robbing him of his youth by telling the truth about mythology? You do things your way, we’ll do them ours. Thanks for your concern, but he is not deprived, joyless, or forced to work in a mine eighteen hours a day. He’s not even deprived of Santa – our culture is completely saturated with Santa, so he knows all the ins and outs of the mythology, and enjoys the story wholeheartedly. We just don’t pretend that it’s all real. He doesn’t need to believe in Santa any more than he needs to believe that eating bread crusts will make his hair grow curly.

Neither Santa nor God is totting up who’s been bad or good in our house, and that’s the way we like it.

[1] On rainforests: in the car the other day he made one of those out-of-the-blue observations that so often come in the car. “Mummy: If rainforests have lots of rain all of the time, then they must always have rainbows!”

[2] If you’d like to check out the Book of Monsters, it’s here.

Categories: history, Life, relationships, religion

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14 replies

  1. I wish we’d done more as you did with the Santa thing, but we did the culturally accepted thing and played into it. The moment when they realise it’s not true is so confronting and painful, and why put kids through that?
    At least we always told them that Santa just gives a few presents, and that the biggest presents are actually from Mum and Dad, because otherwise it makes it looks like Santa likes wealthier kids better than poor kids, doesn’t it?
    I don’t see why kids can’t just be told that it’s all a big game of Let’s Pretend that everybody enjoys at Xmas-time, and the family can still enjoy having “presents from Santa” as part of the acknowledged Let’s Pretend game if they really want.

  2. Was Santa invented by that evil fizzy drink company or is that an urban myth?

  3. From memory, *the modern white beard and red Santa suit* is largely an invention of that evil fizzy drink company’s marketing department. Prior to that Santa Claus/SinterKlaas/Saint Nicholas was represented as wearing a long bishop’s robe that could be many colours, his beard was coloured, and he carried the bishop’s hook and wore the mitre, while the British Father Christmas was a bearded man in a long, green fur-lined robe without the panoply of bishopric.
    Wikipedia states:

    Modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on December 23, 1823. In this poem Santa is established as a heavyset individual with eight reindeer (who are named for the first time). Santa Claus later appeared in various colored costumes as he gradually became amalgamated with the figure of Father Christmas, but red soon became popular after he appeared wearing such on an 1885 Christmas card.


    Images of Santa Claus were further cemented through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was in fact invented by Coca-Cola or that Santa wears red and white because those are the Coca-Cola colors. In fact, Coca-Cola was not even the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image Santa Claus in its advertising – White Rock Beverages used Santa in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923 after first using him to sell mineral water in 1915. Even though Coca-Cola was not the first to do this, their massive campaign was one of the main reasons for why Santa Claus ended up depicted as wearing red and white, in contrast to the variety of colours he wore prior to the campaign.

    Wikipedia’s cited sources for this page seem fairly reliable.
    But it is definitely the fault of the evil fizzy drink company’s Christmas cards that mall Santas have to suffer their thighs looking like giant frankfurters when they could be wearing a comfortable robe.

  4. Yes, it’s true. The biggest trick Santa ever pulled was convincing people he didn’t exist.

  5. I had a strict policy of never lying to my daughter, so my compromise was to deflect any questions about the jolly break-and-enterer, the easter bilby and the like. This gave no excuse for my daughter to distrust my words. When she was a little older, I’d respond to her questions with leading questions of my own.
    The most cutting question is “Why doesn’t Santa leave toys for all the good little children who happen to be Buddhist or Moslem?”
    My other approach was to give a good sense of myth with tales of Medea (the early bits of the story) or the riddle of the Sphinx with Oedipus’ solution (again, I left out the later bits of the story). I consider this an “innoculation” approach to mythologies that are still accepted today

  6. Good on you. I was just thinking about this issue this morning, wondering what I’d do if I ever have kids– lying to them about Santa would not be an option for me. That’s not because I was scarred by my own Santa experiences. I never learned that Santa wasn’t real in one big harrowing revelation; as I got older, I just realised that the whole thing was pretty implausible. I actually pretended to believe in it for a couple of years, just to keep my mother happy. In the end, I just sat both my parents down and explained to them that I knew the truth now. I think my dad was relieved because he didn’t like the whole deceit thing, and my mother wasn’t upset either– I probably could have let her in on my lack of belief a lot earlier. 🙂 But the point is that the world didn’t stop being wonderful to me because there was no Santa Claus in it– if I remember correctly, that was also the year that I actually started buying presents for others with my saved up pocket money, and that made Christmas more enjoyable than ever.
    I hate the whole way that childhood is idealised as a time of wonder– not because it isn’t at time of wonder, but because I think that part of that idealisation is the implicit acceptence that such wonder is going to be squashed out of children as they grow older and learn that they’re expected to turn into cookie-cutter human beings.

  7. My Parental Units always told us santa was make-believe, and we knew it was dad filling the stockings and drinking the scotch we left for santa – it was just a fun thing to pretend. Ditto the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
    Although on fairies, I was less convinced that they weren’t real – the parentals SAID they weren’t, but they were in so many books there seemed at least an outside chance that there were real fairies. Accordingly, I apparently left small notes all over the garden saying “Dear Fairies, if you are real please leave a reply”. I don’t actually remember doing this, mind.
    I’m actually really glad my parents didn’t lie to me – I never had the disappointment of finding out that they weren’t telling the truth.

  8. Snopes has a whole section on Cokelore, and they have a page on the Coke-Santa story here.
    The lad’s kindy Christmas party was this morning, and I thought the whole Santa side of things was well handled. The teacher told the German story of the Turkish St Nicholas that she was told as a child. She slowly dressed up in a Santa style suit as part of telling the tale, then left and came back with a sack of presents for the children (little notebooks and pencils), with her name signed on the card. And she secretly put a little lolly surprise in each child’s shoe (the shoes were lined out outside).
    Beppie: Word, to this:

    I hate the whole way that childhood is idealised as a time of wonder– not because it isn’t at time of wonder, but because I think that part of that idealisation is the implicit acceptence that such wonder is going to be squashed out of children as they grow older and learn that they’re expected to turn into cookie-cutter human beings.

  9. Something like a year ago, I somehow got into a conversation with the kid in which it was established that Santa wasn’t real. But then a month or so ago, when she checked in with me on the question, she asked a follow-up: Who brings the toys, if not Santa?
    I figured that bursting that balloon twice before she turned five was maybe a little much, so I asked what she thought. She said she didn’t know.
    Now we’ve got a date to sit up on Christmas Eve and see if we can solve the mystery.

  10. My Californian compadre, Mark, has a unique Santa song on his blog offering a Jewish perspective. (It’s a Sarah Silverman song, presumably from her TV show). To give you the flavour, it’s called ‘What do you have to do with Jesus?’
    As for myself, I can’t ever really remember a time when I thought Santa actually existed – Santa wasn’t really a big thing in our family, anyway. Dad always enjoyed playing games (like leaving reindeer footprints and, er, droppings around the place, etc), but I can’t remember me or my brothers ever buying into it.

  11. My parents were very imaginative and creative with the way they made Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny real for us and I can still readily conjure that sense of fantastic delight and, yes wonder from that time of being a believer. I’m recreating it for my child and I’m loving it, it brings it all back. So far, she loves it too.
    I find it a little strange to be lying to her, especially about something she’s not entirely comfortable with – the idea of a strange man visiting our house while we’re all sleeping, but I love the mythology all the same, and most mythology is pretty strange when scrutinised. We’re not spiritual, we’re not religious, we don’t have a huge cultural identification – this is our time to dabble in all that with her and I do it mostly because it’s fun, for all of us.

  12. Does anyone here remember the late ’80s when Channel 7 at least ran a “Santa Watch” on Xmas Eve?
    When i was in kinder 23 years ago they put on a Nativity Play – wouldn’t do that these days.
    I agree that if parents want to push Santa and God down on their child it’s their choice but as said upthread it’s much more painful for the child to find out the long way/hard way.

  13. On Santa Watch – NORAD still does their Santa tracking system.

  14. Dad always enjoyed playing games (like leaving reindeer footprints and, er, droppings around the place, etc), but I can’t remember me or my brothers ever buying into it.

    I enjoyed playing games with the footprints and things too, which is I guess why I wanted to recreate that. But if I was doing it again I’d make it clear that is was all a big game of Let’s Pretend. With an Aspie child, he took things very literally, and the shattering of the Santa belief was hard for him (of course, we didn’t know he was Aspie when we started doing the Santa stuff).

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