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How do you tell a child that there are no fairies?
I’ve given this matter a lot of thought, lately, and not because I mull profoundly in my spare time, but because my son has asked some specific questions and I know it’s a matter of time before he figures out some of the answers.
At the moment, he’s running a little behind. He still believes in things that I don’t ever remember believing in: Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, magic. I think there are two reasons. One is that he is the older of my two children and the oldest of his friends, so there is no one to tell him otherwise. The second reason, and probably the most influential, is that he is the dreamer, the innocent, the one who believes because he wants to believe.
My son has had Santa Claus for a year longer than a school bully allowed me to have him. Santa was the last to fall for all of us because he was the one we most wanted to believe in. Not that I didn’t appreciate the Easter Bunny’s candy. Or that I wasn’t glad to take advantage of the Tooth Fairy’s strange obsession. But Santa — come on — he seemed to be the one my parents really wanted me to know and the one, quite frankly, that made belief most profitable.
It is no wonder that Santa is the last of a child’s plausible fantasies.
In the last year, I’ve seen my son look into the eyes of Santa and Winnie the Pooh (and Tigger, too). And I’ve seen him believe. His liquid brown eyes could not have left the imposters unaffected. No one, not even in costume, can resist an expression of such wonder and delight.
And I’ve seen him experience consternation when a Leprechaun, who had wreaked small havoc on his classroom for two years in preschool, was a no-show for kindergarten. My wife saved that one by slipping into his bedroom and causing the appropriate mischief, laying the blame squarely on the little green guy. I’ve written a couple of notes to the Tooth Fairy on behalf of my son. In one he wanted to apologize for forgetting to leave her flowers (he always, for reasons I don’t remember, has left her a flower and the next morning the petals will be scattered from his pillow to the window and beyond). Recently, a day after his tooth was exchanged for cash, he wanted to leave her a note.
“A note about what?” I asked.
“I just want her to know how much I appreciate everything she’s done for me,” he said.
I don’t know if there is a name for this stage, this point where a father suddenly is uncomfortable with the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a child’s beliefs. How old will he be when the truth becomes not a small disappointment, but a feeling of betrayal?
My son wants to know some specifics about the Tooth Fairy and I’m suddenly torn between telling him what I really know and telling him something hopeful. I think it’s time to ‘fess up, but those eyes stop me.
It won’t hurt for him to believe a while longer because non-belief is only temporary, anyway. He will know someday that there is no Santa, but he will discover again that there is. Someone at school probably will tell him there is no Tooth Fairy, but someday he will learn the lengths that fairy went to scatter those petals across the room and even on the exterior window ledge. Fairies take a temporary leave and return when we are old enough to appreciate the truth behind the magic, and the magic of the truth.
I look forward to this Christmas Eve when my wife and I will work as quickly and quietly as we can to create a moment — not a memory, but a moment. I don’t know what the rewards of parenting older children are (survival, maybe), but the rewards of parenting young children include the right to relish the magic you and they make together.
The hiatus is not far off. Last Christmas morning, my younger (and more skeptical) son was just past his fourth birthday. He stood looking at the toys with sleepy, amazed eyes. “I can’t believe all this,” he said, mostly to himself. “I was mean just yesterday.”
Santa comes but once a year for a child, and twice in a lifetime as we adults realize the efforts our parents made to create magic.
How do you tell a child there are no fairies? I think you do not. It would be a lie.
Ross Norton is preparing for Christmas in the Carolina foothills near Clemson. This column appeared first in the Pageland Progressive-Journal in 2005.