“We have always had an enjoyable tradition of encouraging belief in Father Christmas until our children slowly pick up the idea that he does not exist. This worked very well with our two oldest who gave up the belief themselves at 8 or 9. However, our second youngest son, Tim, aged 7, after being teased by friends for believing in Father Christmas, is now inconsolable. He says we have all lied to him- his brother and sister as well as us and he insists we tell our youngest”.
Mr and Mrs N
Tim is right. His parents and his older brother and sister have all lied to him. The lie is a culturally accepted one and can be transmitted for a range of positive or negative reasons but it is still a lie. As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
A child who is teased by peers about his beliefs expects to return home and be supported for his courageous upholding of family values. To come home and find out that the truth you thought you were espousing was a lie is indeed complicated. The fact that your whole family or even your whole neighbourhood could share this knowledge except for you makes it even harder.
Sarah, aged 6, came back from her school nativity play crying. Her best friend thought the play was stupid as Jesus did not exist. Sarah was comforted by her family’s religious certainty. Mark, aged 7, was similarly comforted by his atheist family when his orthodox class teacher harangued non-believers. Had their respective families lightly informed them that family religion/atheism was just a lie you grew out of when you got older what kind of reaction would we expect?
For the young child there are not different compartments for “socially enjoyable lies” and “real lies”. A lie is a lie. A lie about Father Christmas is only possible because for the baby and little child parents are magical beings. They can do things that are far beyond the capabilities of their small children. Whistling or blowing bubbles can be feats even more amazing than coming down a chimney. (Indeed, for many toddlers, the wrapping paper is of far greater interest than any contents!) Therefore if grownups say Father Christmas exists he does.
So Tim has received a fast triple-blow. He has lost a super-power protector, a magical Father Christmas. It is possible that he also feels humiliated as a child for not knowing what is or is not possible in the world. Finally, he has learned that trusted adults and siblings can lie. If they can lie about Father Christmas perhaps other family facts are also lies.
As children grow up parents can seem smaller both in height and in intellectual and physical abilities. At the same time, there can be a more realistic appraisal. This process can be slow (as with the N’s older children) or painfully fast and sharp as it has been for Tim. Oscar Wilde drew attention to the way children start by admiring their parents,” then”, he continues “they understand them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them”. Freud, in drawing attention to the common fairy tale theme of a royal baby kidnapped and brought up by peasants, helps us understand this process further. He sees the royal couple as an early image of our parents endowed with abilities to control the world whilst the humble peasants who bring us up are the older image! These imagos reflect the struggle between wishing parents were omnipotent and knowing that they are not. Understanding that limited help can be more worthwhile is a sign of maturity.
It is not just children who have to give up illusions about their parents. Parents have to give them up too. Knowing that soon your child will not think you a magical being can be painful. “I suppose it was less painful seeing Santa lose his powers rather than me.” said one father. “I thought he would appreciate what I could do for him more after he realised Santa couldn’t do anything”.
Santa is not necessarily a benign figure. Another father was all too aware that he had turned Father Christmas into a punishing authority figure when he found his 5-year-old son’s violent outbursts too difficult to manage. “Father Christmas is watching you and if you are not good he won’t bring you any presents”, became a regular threat. On the other hand, as another father commented, “Why should Santa get the credit for my hard work and personal attention that ensured presents that mattered?”.
The older N children have presumably slowly understood and appreciated their parents’ part in the choice and meaning of family Christmas. Despite the lie (rather than because of it) they have enjoyed the affectionate family rituals. Tim, on the other hand, is more affected both by the lie and the loss of a magical figure. Only the N’s will know which matters most to him and only time will tell whether his hurt is temporary or not. Cultures can sanction many practices that can be looked back on with dismay. Parents are likely to pass on to their children customs they experienced and identified with before they had a chance to intellectually evaluate them. However, with a good-enough constitution and attachment healthy development occurs despite a culture rather than because of it and the N family need to consider what is best for their youngest.
It may help Tim and also be a useful focus for re-evaluation if the N’s let their youngest know that it is father and mother who will fill the family’s stockings.