I, like many other parents, absolutely love the world of make-believe – it’s a fun and interesting escape from reality. One thing that is even better, is to watch how this world can captivate little ones’ imaginations with utter awe and wonder. It’s such a lovely experience to be witness to, which is why it gave me such pleasure introducing my kids to the legends of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and of course, the Tooth Mouse/Fairy. I absolutely revelled in making these fantasies as real as possible for my kids, and it was such fun for both my children and I that I did everything I could to keep the ruse going for as long as possible.
However, as they say, all good things must eventually come to an end, which left me in a difficult position: “How do I tell my kids that I have been lying to them for all this time? Would it break our trust when I told them the truth? Was it wrong to fool them for so long?” These are all inevitable questions every parent who indulges in these childhood fantasies have to face. Let’s unpack the problem…
Is it wrong to indulge in childhood fantasies?
The simple answer is no, because as published in The Scientific American, there is a growing body of research that shows that fantasy and imaginative play are critical building blocks in the development of children’s intellectual and creative thinking. Engaging in fantasy play allows children to explore and make sense of the world around them. It sparks creativity, enhances cognitive skills, and fosters various aspects of their development.
In fact, British psychologist and researcher, Dr Louise Bunce of Oxford Brookes University, actively encourages parents to inspire and support fantasy and imaginative play in one of her research reports, so that they may provide their children with a rich and holistic developmental experience: “The results (of my research) provide evidence that engaging in play that involves imagining increasingly unrealistic scenarios is associated with thinking more creatively.” She adds that imaginative play can nurture children’s creativity, problem-solving abilities, social skills, and emotional wellbeing, laying a foundation for their overall growth and learning.
What’s more, is that from my own experience, it is a truly wonderful way to bond with your kids. Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist associated with Sesame Workshop, the organisation responsible for Sesame Street, emphasises that participating in children’s imaginative play is not deceptive, but rather a way to engage in their world of make-believe. In an interview with NPR Life Kit, Dr. Truglio suggests that joining in this pretend world can be a valuable and developmentally appropriate means for parents to connect with their young children. Plus, imaginative and make-believe games are excellent for a child’s creative development.
“Engaging in fantasy play allows children to explore and make sense of the world around them…”
When kids start asking questions…
Fantasy and imagination play different roles in our children’s lives at different ages. They are the most engaged in the world of make-believe from the age of 3 and 6 years of age. From the age of about 7 to 9 years of age, children make a big shift cognitively and become far more caught up with a more realistic approach to life, and it is usually during this period, when these myths and fantasies will be questioned. When the fictional character does come into question, then honesty does become an important consideration.
However, before taking it for granted that the jig is up entirely, be sure to first find out the reason behind their doubts. This is because, often, your child may not actually be asking what you think that they are asking, and you could give them an answer that they are not really prepared for. Some things that you can ask include: “Why do you ask?”, “Did you notice something?”, “Did a friend from school say anything?”. If they answer these questions, but still defend the legend, then it means that they still want to believe and you should feel free to keep the tradition running.
If however, your child is mature enough to have it all figured out, and they ask you directly if this fictional character is not real, then it’s time to stop pretending. There are a few clever ways of handling this scenario that will help keep the magic alive:
- Explain how the legend came to be: Give the history behind the legend, what the motivation is behind keeping the legend alive, and how we can continue to honour it. For example, you can answer as follows with regards to the question of Santa: “Santa Claus was a real person that lived many years ago. His real name was St Nicholas, and he was kind and generous, and gave to many people in need. And so we honour his memory by becoming Santa Claus and giving to others. Now that you know the truth, you can also become Santa over Christmas, and help make the holidays special by giving to others.”
- Include them in the ruse: If you have kids of different ages, then including the older ones in the subterfuge is a good way to bond with the older child and make them feel special, and it is a great way of keeping the tradition going for the younger ones for a bit longer.
- Keep the magic alive: A little bit of magic goes a long way to making great memories – it’s not only good for the kids, but it is good for everybody! As such, make a concerted effort to create family traditions that celebrate the holiday or milestone – continue to give them a gift of money when their teeth fall out, carry on painting and hiding Easter eggs over Easter, and instead of leaving the cookies out for Santa at bedtime, rather share them with your child and their newly acquired knowledge.
- Spoil alert: In many cases, children want to be “truth-tellers” and they feel the need to out the big secret. However, it is important to convince your child not to do this. Explain to them that not all other kids their age know that these characters aren’t real, and that they should try and not spoil it for them by telling them what they know, as they might not be ready to hear it.
Not believing is OK too
Ultimately, however, it is also completely fine for parents to choose not to teach their children that these fictional characters are real. Instead, you can rather focus on the religious or social aspect of the holiday or milestone. In this instance, it is important to teach your children that every family is different, and they should have respect other religions and cultures. Let them know that even though your family does not believe in these characters, other families like to pretend, and that is OK too.