SHIFT: From Santa and the Elf On The Shelf to why bad things happen, how much truth do our kids really need?

From discussing keeping private parts private, to sex, to drugs, parents are constantly trying to suss the appropriateness of passing on knowledge in ways that educate, not traumatize.

Lisa Machado 7 minute read December 13, 2021
two christmas elves

Maybe the real question is where the Santa story falls on the scale of lie-severity. GETTY

There’s nothing like the spirit of Christmas to pit those who insist that parents encouraging the notion of Santa are nothing but big liars setting their kids up for a lifetime of skepticism and distrust against those who feel that the magic of St. Nick is an essential rite of a happy childhood.

This week alone, there were more than ten stories ranging from how to explain Santa to your kids without lying and a mother’s admission that she “absolutely lies” to her son about Father Christmas, to a psychologist who encouraged parents to “tell the truth” about the man in red as a show of respect to their children, as well as to model honesty.

There was also piece on why the holiday season star Elf On The Shelf is creepy, which led me to mention the doll to the Healthing editorial team.

My description of the stuffed, happy-looking elf-man — which parents leave in different places under the premise that he watches children during the day and then heads to the North Pole at night to report whether they were naughty or nice — elicited some giggles and eye-rolls. But there were also comments about the creep factor, the shameless manipulation of kids, and yes, the outright lies that parents weave for their children.

I personally never enlisted the help of the Elf for behaviour modification — it’s hard to ignore the ‘ick’ factor of using a doll to motivate your kids into not being jerks for the sole purpose of getting presents. I did, however, fall into the magic of Santa when my children were little, not to the extent that a neighbour did, using fireplace ashes to leave reindeer hoof-prints in her sleeping daughter’s room, but we did pretend to hear shuffling in the chimney. We also made sure that the cookies and carrots left out for the jolly man and his transportation crew had enthusiastic bites taken out of them.

And though I drew the line at sitting on a sweaty Santa’s knee, much to grandma’s disappointment, there was something so lovely about seeing my kids’ excitement as they watched the Santa Tracker on television on Christmas Eve, and hearing their little voices calling us to come see what Santa brought — it was, well, the best.

While there may be no shortage of debates over whether these are sweet traditions or dangerous, manipulative falsehoods that serve only to harm and mislead our children (sure, it’s a little weird to be excited about a stranger coming into your house in the middle of the night), one could certainly make a pretty good argument that, in a world as dark as ours is right now, a little mystery and magic offers our little people a bit of a break from the doldrums. A break that many of us grown-ups wish we could get in on — if only for a day or two.

Loving mother make peace with upset small daughter

Talking to your children about hard truths is an ongoing process in parenting. GETTY

Maybe the real question is where the Santa story falls on the scale of lie-severity. Since it doesn’t seem that we have a definitive, scientifically proven answer on whether or not believing in Santa — or other mythical characters, like the money-dropping Tooth Fairy — causes any kind of collateral damage to our kids, it’s left to individual parents to decide what feels good and fair to them.

When I was a kid, my mom called not-so-serious untruths that didn’t hurt anyone — like saying I didn’t have any ice cream, when in fact, I ate the entire tub — “tall tales.” What if we classified supporting kids’ magical beliefs as just another tall tale? After all, believing in Santa isn’t malicious — in fact, for many, it is the source of great joy and creates wonderful memories for most.

The truth is, regardless of what you believe when it comes to imaginary figures and the role they should or shouldn’t play in a child’s life, knowing what to share with kids, how much, and when, is one of the biggest struggles for many parents. The turmoil may start with Santa, but it continues as your children grow — from discussing keeping private parts private, to sex, to drugs, we are constantly trying to suss the appropriateness of passing on knowledge in ways that educate, not traumatize.

Years ago, my seven-year-old saw a pediatric dentist about getting four teeth extracted. Hearing what was going to happen, he started to cry and asked me if it would hurt. When I hesitated, the dentist gave him a book of stickers to play with and pulled me aside to say quietly: “You need to tell him it will hurt so he can be prepared. He doesn’t need the gory details, but give him enough so he knows what to expect. He will make it through, and that will be good for him and he will learn he can trust you.’

It wouldn’t have been the first time I felt challenged with figuring out how to tell the truth, while saving my children worry and fear. Since being diagnosed with leukemia, I have done my best to answer their questions as truthfully as possible, while protecting their sweet hearts from unnecessary anxiety. When they were little and asked about the orange tablet I took every night with my dinner, I said that my blood was sick and the medicine was making it better. As they grew up and learned about cancer, their questions became more difficult. One day my daughter asked if she needed to worry about me. The truth was that I didn’t know, but I made sure the spirit of my answer was the same as when she was a toddler: “I have medicine that keeps me healthy.” And for her, that was enough.

Last year, a friend’s brother was brutally murdered, and though she describes the months afterward as “full of blinding grief,” as the mom of an eleven-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son, she treaded water, working hard to ease the impact of their uncle’s death. Despite her best efforts, the trauma weighed heavy on both of them, translating into terror-filled nightmares, a growing fear of being outside of the house and, for her son, chronic bed-wetting.

Both children spent months processing their feelings of loss with a child psychologist who her son would repeatedly ask whether or not he would be murdered too. The best the doctor could do was be honest, saying that it was impossible to know.

“He was nice about it and everything,” my friend said, her fists clenched. “But it was like he could only focus on telling him the absolute truth.”

But the absolute truth wasn’t what the kid needed.

As the bed-wetting escalated, so did her son’s anxiety, until one day at the end of yet another appointment with her family’s pediatrician to figure out more supportive strategies, my friend’s little boy asked the doctor if he would be murdered one day.

“Without missing a beat,” my friend said, “the doctor said, ‘Of the hundreds of kids in my practice, I can tell you that not one has been murdered.’”

And that night, the bed stayed dry, and it has been so every night since.

The thing is, whether we’re talking about a man in red whose belly jiggles when he laughs, or explaining why bad things happen to really good people, our little ones don’t always need the gory details. There will be many years of reality when they are adults — why wouldn’t we shelter them for as long as we can?

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This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Subscribe here.