On Santa and Other Harmless Fibs: Childhood, Aging and the Maintenance of Hope

I stood guard this Christmas Eve, anxiously surveying the narrow border between childhood innocence and the complex wisdom of messy adulthood. Little had I previously realized how perilously close to one another are these two geographic spaces, and with what relatively modest effort a person might cross from the first of these to the next, all in a matter of seconds.

While my wife brought in presents for our two girls from the garage, I remained frozen at the foot of the stairs like a statue, my gaze fixed upon the door of our youngest daughter, looking for any sign of its untimely opening, listening for any faint trace of her tiny footsteps. So too was I paying careful attention to the shadows cast on the wall of the stairwell, which, were they to shift, would signal that the older of the two girls had snuck from her bedroom to survey the action below.

In truth, it wasn’t Rachel, the six-year-old, about whom I was worried. She well enough believes in Santa as to take seriously the instruction to remain in bed until morning. But Ashton is quite another thing altogether. At 8, she has long since arrived in the land of childhood cynicism, increasingly uncertain about the existence of a man who can fly clear ‘round the world in one night, pulled by magical reindeer, and manage to drop off billions of gifts before the sun comes up. No physicist, she is yet savvy enough to intuit that about such a story as this, there is surely something sketchy.

For nearly two years she has expressed her doubts, and for nearly two years we have managed to rebuff them, to maintain the illusion a bit longer, less for her sake no doubt than for ours. This is what parents do, if not about Santa then about something. Parenthood is, to a very large extent (or so it seems), about the telling of small lies to one’s children. Nothing too gargantuan, but the kind of minor fibs calculated to instill a measure of extra hopefulness in a young life, which life we the parents know will become more complicated than the child can possibly imagine in years to come. No parent, for instance, would likely tell his or her 5-year-old just how tragic life can sometimes prove to be, or that people are far too often cruel, or simply that they won’t actually be able to be a doctor, rock star, zoo keeper and astronaut all at the same time.

Make no mistake, I realize that some children as young as this-younger no doubt-understand these truths, because of the lives into which they’ve been born. Billions the world over who starve for lack of adequate nutrition, or watch their family members perish from preventable disease for lack of sanitation or medicine, or those who are homeless, or who suffer abuse at the hands of a grown-up, know more than most about the human condition. Yet even they, in their better moments, and against all odds, manage to conjure hope. They too dream, and often of things that will never be. But still and then, parents strive not to deflate these dreams too early, knowing as we do that soon enough, at least some of those dreams will be dashed. No need to rush things, we say, if only to ourselves. The truth is coming, and quickly.

For Ashton, I know that her collision with the truth about Santa will be here soon; its distance from the present moment can likely be measured in days, perhaps weeks, and if we’re lucky, maybe a few months. As I stood motionless, standing guard on Christmas eve, I could picture her in her bed asleep, dozing at that moment on a mattress that sits atop an invisible line, demarcating the territorial divide between the pure hope that serves as the veritable capital city of childhood, and the far more circumscribed universe to which we have given the name, “reality,” the latter of these being a place considerably less magical than the former, and the place where, eventually, we all end up, for better or worse.

Surely before next Christmas, I know we will be having that talk: the one where we admit the whole Santa thing was make-believe, a game of sorts. And thank you for playing, we’ll add, along with a stern warning as to what horrors will most certainly befall her should she make the mistake of spoiling the fantasy for her younger sister, or any of her classmates who may still believe, and whose parents have not yet had that talk with them.

This is how childhood begins to die I think: a truism that is neither especially sad nor cause for too much melodramatic reflection, but rather, simply is. The passage from childhood to adulthood comes in fits and starts, and as passages go, this is one of the least painful: far easier to confront than the first unrequited romantic crush, the first broken heart, or the day your child or children leave your home for good, perhaps for college, or to start their own life in a new place, in a new home, severed from the residential umbilical cord to which they had been tethered for nearly two decades. Those are real passages, real gauntlets, and real moments of wrenching emotion. Compared to these, the death of one’s belief in a jolly old elf seems pretty benign, better yet, banal. And compared to the struggles faced by 99 percent or more of the world’s population, I realize that fretting over a child’s coming to terms with the non-existence of Santa Claus might well strike some as borderline obscene.

Yet, just because one challenge does not equate to another doesn’t strip it of all importance. Our burdens are always relative, and for those of us who live with privilege, able to claim any of the following identities, or several of them–as Americans, as the affluent, as white folks, as heterosexuals, men, or the able-bodied, right on down the line–there will be challenges faced by those unable to claim these identities about which we cannot fathom. Yet even those burdens that seem insignificant when compared to certain others become infinitely more consequential once you are forced to stare them in the face. This is because obstacles are not conquered in relation to the obstacles of others; they are only conquered (or not) by us, in the moment. That somewhere there is someone with quite a bit more on their proverbial plate (or less, as the case may be) hardly helps me or mine to overcome hardships and moments of trial when we face them. Climbing a mountain, after all, is quite a bit more difficult than taking one’s first step, but try diminishing the importance of the latter to a parent by way of reference to the former, and see how far you get, with good reason.

When it is your child rapidly approaching one of those milestones that mark the journey from innocence to insight, the moment is raw, and painful, and catastrophic, at least to the parent. But it is also amazing, and beautiful, and awe-inspiring. It is like the dawning of the sun each morning, which burns away all illusions, and leaves us to confront that which simply is, if we are up to the challenge, and, frankly, even if we are not. We try and negotiate these passages with as much grace as possible, often failing in the attempt, but always trying again, knowing (or at least hoping) that the mistakes, though they pile up, will likely be trumped by the victories, however small.

I am sure there are those–indeed I have met a few–who sneer at such sentimentality, but if so, it is in all likelihood because they are not parents, or because they are the kind of parents who believe one should always be brutally honest with one’s children, no matter what, that one should deal with a child the way one might deal with an adult peer: as someone who is not only fully capable of dealing with the unvarnished truth, but also as one who is not deserving of something quite a bit better than merely that. To suggest that we should offer them false hope, false belief, only to dash those hopes that we ourselves created later, is, to some, an act of cruelty.

Fair enough, I suppose, though the kind of person who insists on such hard-headed rationality with kindergartners is the kind of parent I wouldn’t care to spend much time with, nor would I wish the presence of their children, raised on such cold cynicism from an early age, in the classrooms where my own sit each day. Because there is a function to childhood fantasy, and it’s one about which we forget, at our peril.

You see, the fantasies and dreams and hopes of youth are what fuel their creativity. Those fantasies and dreams and hopes, which we indulge even when we know they are largely to remain unfulfilled, are what make life worth living. It is hard to conceive of a world in which everyone hewed merely to the realm of the literal, to that which they could see and touch and feel. Though I am agnostic–and this is a position to which I adhere because there are lots of things I don’t know, and you don’t either, and at least in my case, I’m perfectly OK with that–I am glad for the existence of people whose faith sustains them, who continue to believe in the possibility of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Wonderment is healthy, as with skepticism, and to have too much of one without the other leaves us a world dangerously out of balance. For while dreamers often fail us, to be sure, so too have empiricists of every stripe.

In many ways, I’d rather follow the example of dreamers, the likes of which most all children are, than that set forth by adults, who so often stopped dreaming years ago.

Children, unlike adults, have an innate sense of fairness, as yet unsullied by the whims of their society, the capricious categorizations of race, nationality, gender, sexuality, religion and others to which adults so often cleave and behind which totems they too often perish. We could learn something from them. We could, were we willing, learn a lot.

Yet, having said all of this, we can’t afford to mourn the growth of our children either, at least not for long. Because their growth presents us with the only real hope we have. Each new generation provides us opportunity, and invests in us a radical new sense of possibility, because one day they will be imbued with the adult responsibilities of leadership. In that sense, children are living promissory notes to the future, and please don’t forget it, even when it can be easy to do so, like the next time one is screaming next to you on a plane, or being too loud in a restaurant, or some such thing.

Their transition to the far less magical world of adulthood is a necessary one. For just as no child who believes in Santa ever started a war, neither did such a child ever stop one. Only adults have ever managed to do that. And so the growth of the child, including the part where they shed most of their innocence, is a critical part of life, however difficult it can be to witness.

There is some child, right now, somewhere in the world, who we will need to nurture, so that he or she may be the one to cure cancer, or AIDS, or help lead the fight for ecological sanity, sustainable economics, racial and gender equity, and so many other things without which the planet cannot survive much longer. We can not afford to squander one moment in seeing to it that those children, all of them–yours, mine, and those in places we will never visit, born of people we do not know–will have the opportunity to thrive.

But for them to thrive they must be allowed to dream. They must be allowed to indulge fantasies about what could be, even if, ultimately it is not to be. One cannot create that which one cannot at least envision, conceptualize, or dream of, and least of all if they have been told not to dream, not to fantasize, not to believe in things they cannot see. We have not seen God, for instance, and for some that is all that need be known. God cannot, therefore, exist. But so too we might recall that we have not seen justice either, real justice, among our human family. Yet we believe, at least I do, that it is possible. We are in real trouble, worse than we might imagine, the minute we conclude otherwise.

And so, soon Ashton will know the truth, about Santa and so much more. And the cycle of inconsequential fabrications will start all over again, somewhere down the line, if and when she has children of her own–so too with Rachel. On the one hand, it is hard not to be saddened by the loss of innocence and naiveté involved in this process. But on the other, it is equally hard, even impossible not to be exhilarated by the coming of wisdom, in whatever form, and about whatever subject. For only with a combination of naiveté and insight can we hope to survive: the first allowing for dreams that seem absurd, perhaps, but which inspire us to believe that anything is possible, and the second to steady us for those times when we discover there is no Santa, literally or metaphorically speaking, dispensing gifts to all the good little boys and girls. We are the gifts, to one another and the world: may we prove ourselves worthy of receiving them, and of being received.

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