One of the great debates around Christmastime for Christians is whether to encourage or allow the belief in Santa Claus. I have friends and family on both sides of this debate, so I want to be careful here. I have a great deal of respect for the desire to keep the focus on Jesus and his birth at this time of year. I want to encourage that focus, too.
And, yet, I allow my children … I encourage them even … to believe in Santa.
We — my husband and I — don’t just stop there. We also have elves that visit our house every year during this season. Some would say that at best I am distracting from the message of Christ. At worst I am lying to my children.
The line between fantasy and falsehood is delightfully fuzzy during childhood. God created it to be this way and it is so important for a child to be able to play in this grey area.
In fact, the irony is that the more a child is allowed to play in this fuzzy, grey area, the better prepared he or she is for the realities of adulthood.
The question remains: is it ok, perhaps even positive, to encourage fantasy in the life of a child? My conviction is that it is not only positive; it is critically important. And, the window of time is very, very small.
Too often adults approach children as though children think like we do. They don’t. Their brains are not the same as adult brains. In fact, it is dangerous to treat them otherwise — to not understand and acknowledge this difference. They do not think thoughts like adults do. They don’t hear like we do. They don’t understand like we do. They don’t believe like we do. Their minds are incredibly fluid and pliable and the more their minds are exercised through the work of fantasy and imagination the stronger they become for what is sometimes the cruelties of adulthood.
In fact, it is children whose window of fantasy and imagination have been disrupted and have been exposed to adult things too fast that struggle with reality MORE in adulthood. Let’s take an extreme example: A child who is exposed to adult things at an early age — things that could be considered abusive even — can end up experiencing breaks from reality as adults as a way to cope. It is almost like they are catching up in adulthood for never being allowed to be a kid.
I am guessing you know adults who demonstrate this childlike approach to adulthood — adults who struggle to keep down the realities of adult life, adults whose childhood was interrupted in some big or small way, adults who are trying to make up for lost time.
I see this dynamic a lot in my office. I see parents who forget that children just want life to be normal after the divorce, after the illness, after the trauma. They are tired of dealing with adult things. No, they DON’T want to go to a therapist! They want to go to basketball practice and to the playground. Mom and dad are aware of the adult stuff through the trauma, and if the child is depressed, it is probably from picking up the adult anxiety from mom and dad. Children have been too aware, too in touch, and are desperate to go back to childhood. They need to know that they can talk if they want to and sometimes they do, but most of the talking will probably happen later, when their verbal and cognitive skills catch up to the adult issues they have been exposed to. Kids need the safety and room to be kids.
And a lot of being a kid is believing in things that are fanciful, magical, and flighty.
Adults are often very uncomfortable with this world. It is a little too fluid for us. We want them to come back to earth, get more concrete, know what they believe, know what is real.
The only problem is the the idea of reality is such a vapor to young children. That is why so many of them lie. Early in childhood they don’t know what a lie is. It is through fantasy and play that they figure these things out. A famous child specialist once said: “Play is a child’s work." It is work we must tend to carefully.
I don’t think I am lying to my children when I go along with them and pretend that their imaginary friend is sitting next to them. I don’t think I am lying when I pretend that the elves decorated our tree with underwear — again!
Some might say that there is a difference between allowing a child to pretend and promoting it.
I disagree. In fact, I think children often do not learn to pretend if parents do not participate and lead the way.
So, yes, I let my children believe in elves. I have absolutely no qualms about it. We participate in Advent and talk about the real meaning of Christmas. I know my children know the true meaning of Christmas. It reveals itself in our conversations at the dinner table and bedtime. If along the way, for a relatively few years, my children pretend and play in a fantasy world of elves, Santa Claus, and bunnies, I think they could be the better for it.
Last night when I was tucking her in, my oldest, age 8, says to me: “Mama, we wrote letters to Santa in school today. I almost put quotations around his name." Then she smiles at me.
The meaning is clear. Quotations. As if he doesn’t exist.
I smile back at her. I grieve a little bit as I walk out of her room. I know she is on her way out of the magical world of early childhood. She hasn’t left yet. She still plays and pretends and makes up imaginary worlds in her room with her sister. Still, I know it is coming. I only hope I have protected her enough. I only hope I have guarded her childhood heart and let her live her fantasy world out to its fullest. I hope I was a good steward of those wonder years and didn’t expose her little mind to too much too soon. I hope I didn’t interrupt her play with the world’s seriousness and gravity in a way that stole a single second of that precious time.
Imagination and fantasy helps a child learn to cope. They help pave the way for learning and growing. Creativity and this kind of play is a gift from God. I look around and see the Enemy at work constantly to steal, kill, and destroy it. And, he doesn’t mind trying from any angle. He tries through the liberal left through what children are exposed to through the media. He tries through the conservative right by the rigidity of religious rules.
I am standing in the gap for my children and fighting like a warrior for their childhood. So, while I respect and appreciate the convictions of those who would think I am lying to my children, I hope you can see a little of my heart here and understand that I am just as strong in my own beliefs. It is not a haphazard decision. It is a decision I believe honors the creative work still being done in their little minds, minds that are still being formed — formed developmentally through play, fantasy, and imagination.
I don’t expect a big fallout with Eloise. She seems to be fine with a smooth transition from belief to non-belief, from fantasy to reality. I am sure I will have a conversation at some point with her about why we have chosen to let them believe. Then, I will get to experience the next fun stage.
Eloise will likely be helping me plan the elf’s mischievousness next year. I am sure she will have better ideas than decorating the tree with underwear. I can’t wait!
Emily Stone, mother of four and a pastor's spouse, is a professor and license marriage and family therapist. She and her husband write about faith and life at www.stonewritten.com.