"So, Reese, what is Santa going to bring you?" asks the boys' hairstylist, two and a half boys through our visit to her salon and struggling for small talk. Reese is silent. I shift in my seat, lean forward to explain the pause in conversation...but then, decide to wait.
The stylist clips around one ear, swivels the chair around, continues around his other ear. Reese is now facing me and I can see his eyes in his slightly-lowered face. His brows are drawn in thought. He casts a sideways look.
"Um, Kim? Santa isn't real. He's just a guy in a costume."
Again, I wait for the reaction. Kim widens her eyes, chuckles briefly in surprise, but doesn't know what to make of what Reese has just said, and lapses back into silence.
Relieved that at least his proclamation wasn't made in the presence of anybody his own age, I quoted him on Facebook...and was almost immediately informed that actually, he has spread the truthy word to his own age group. In a mall play area. At the top of his lungs. And oh yeah, his brother broke the news to a younger friend last year. Fortunately for my friendship with her parents, she didn't buy it.
Well, shit. This is the stuff people raise their eyebrows and ask about when they find out that your family doesn't "do" Santa. What will you do when your kid almost inevitably spills the beans to some other kid? After all, as a non-believer he is a minority in a vast, Christmas-celebratin', Santa-believin' world. And since he's a minority, most people are going to assume that he celebrates Christmas (which we do) and believes in Santa (which we don't), thereby ensuring that at some point (or two or three or ten) he is going to be stuck in a sticky situation, having to respond to a statement or query that slams together his own world view with his somewhat-less-than-fully-developed social skills.
Fortunately for me, so far there hasn't been any major fallout from Reese and Griffin's Clausian indiscretions. These exchanges carry the potential of getting hairy for both kids and parents, though, as in the case of a friend of mine who also has a no-nonsense son named Reese. Last year, her Reese informed a neighborhood friend about Santa's non-existence. From his point of view, he was providing information that he believed to be accurate to a friend who had just said something apparently inaccurate. This is typical, even healthy, for early elementary kids. They're learning about fact and fiction, about how to navigate the social intricacies of correcting people who are mistaken. The problem is, when you correct a friend about Santa, the friend can end up confused and distressed, and his parent can end up frustrated and angry - angry at the child who spilled the beans, and angry at the parent who raised him. In this case, the other child's parent requested that the boys be kept apart for a month, until Christmas had passed. Ouch.
How do we avoid these situations? Some of what my family does:
- celebrate our own annual traditions and talk about how they developed
- read about world religions, seasons, holidays, and traditions
- talk about what traditions our friends celebrate
- encourage compassionate ways of handling conflict/disagreement
- discuss why friends might believe the things they do, and why we believe the things we do
- consider how sensitive words like "lie," "game", and "pretend" can be to our friends who incorporate Santa in their holiday traditions
- make time to discuss sticky situations that arise
- think about ways to be true to ourselves without hurting other people's feelings
Of course, proactive parenting and tolerance training can only go so far. As one friend put it, once a child has information, the adult no longer controls that information. I can share my perspective with a child and try to hand him some tools, but ultimately, he has social skills and an understanding of the world that are filtered through his own cognitive abilities. Even assuming we could "perfectly" parent a five-year-old, he's still five. A five-year-old is a stickler for accuracy. If his friend says the sky is green, he's probably going to inform him it's blue. If somebody misidentifies a dinosaur, you can bet he'll be quick to provide the correct name. And when that friend says that only kids who believe in Santa get presents, he's going to tell him that Santa isn't real. It's his truth.
Even once a kid gets old enough to understand that it's probably not a good idea to correct his friends that way, he's still going to be mulling this stuff over. Griff came to me this evening and asked, "why do some parents lie to their kids about Santa?" Now, I know and you know that many parents do not consider Santa to be a lie, or they consider it a white lie, and this whole truth-or-lie topic is not at all what I want to get into here. If you want to dig into that topic, read and comment on last year's post. For the purposes of this post, consider this: many second-graders believe that a man who lives at the North Pole flies around the world in a sleigh and makes gift deliveries at their house and the homes of other children. They don't believe this in a metaphorical, spirit-of-giving way. They believe it in a very straightforward way. And Griff knows that the gifts that appear (wonderously! overnight! how does it work?) under our tree were purchased or made by his family members. So to his almost-eight-year-old mind, telling a kid that Santa put it there - or setting things up so that a kid will form that conclusion on his or her own - is a lie. And he doesn't understand why a family might do that.
So I gave him some context. Those parents? They probably believed in Santa when they were kids. And they enjoyed it, and eventually figured out what was going on, and still loved the tradition, and when they had kids they wanted to give them just the same kind of feelings and memories. And adults sometimes feel like childhood is full of more imagination and wonder and mystery than adulthood is, and they want to enhance that, and watch their kids experience that kind of trusting belief.
He asked me: did my family do that? I explained that no, my mom had a traumatic Santa experience, so she didn't continue that tradition, and because of that, my happy childhood Christmas memories aren't combined with Santa. Dan's family does have lots of great stories about the "evidence" left by Santa and when I met him, there were still gifts "from Santa" under their tree, but when our children were born, he decided that all those good feelings didn't rely specifically upon Santa, but upon the inherent joy of families sharing happy times and traditions together. So we chose not to do it. I asked Griff and Reese if they wished we did. They both said no. And if my experience is any indication, they mean it, and they won't ever feel "deprived" as so many people assume (yes, people say this to me!).
I think the childhood-memories piece is, perhaps, the key to bridging the gap between Santa and non-Santa families. We're each pursuing our own vision of a comfy, cozy, magical, wonderful, inspirational time. Our ideas of how to do that hinge upon our own childhood experiences. Most of us cherish the intangible "Holiday Spirit" of love and giving. Some of us call it Santa. Some of us don't. If we understand this, can it take some - maybe even most - of the angst out of five-year-old confrontations over Saint Nick?
I've told you some of what my family does, and I'd also like to share my hopes for how all adults would approach these issues, especially during this time of year:
- discuss the many things people believe and the ways they worship/celebrate
- assume that people you meet probably don't do things the way you do - they may celebrate a different holiday or no holiday at all. They may include the same traditions as you or different ones.
- think of small talk topics that don't center around Santa (I cannot tell you how many grocery store clerks ask my kids about Santa every year - and every time I wonder if it will be the time the kids loudly spoil the Santa Secret for every other kid in the store).
- talk about why your family chose your traditions, and also about why other families might have chosen their traditions.
- please don't teach children that only good kids get presents, or only kids who believe...it's just not true
- please don't assume that children who don't celebrate the same way yours do are deprived or that their parents are devoid of imagination and a sense of whimsy (yes, people assume this about me, and it sucks).
- please do realize that there are many ways of having "magic" in a holiday, that Santa is just one of those ways, and that there's no way to compare the amount of magic in one family versus another.
Do you have any proactive tips for Santa-lovin' or Santa-leavin' families? How about advice for both kinds of families for those awkward moments when all the thoughtful, proactive parenting in the world goes out the window and a kid lets the cat out of the bag? Does each kind of family owe compassion to the other? How can they extend that compassion during a tricky moment?
(And to parents of children who may have been at Short Pump Mall one afternoon two weeks ago...I'm really sorry if my dreamy, whimsical, but no-nonsense kid put a wrinkle in your holiday season, and hope it was only a very small blip in an otherwise joyful time.)