Friday, December 22, 2006

On raising doubters

I’ll start with today’s painting first – Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas. I love Caravaggio’s incredible realism, from the trademark wrinkled foreheads to the open wound in Christ’s side. Ironically, the painting is a masterful illusion (it’s really just paint on canvas after all) about those who rely too much on their senses. Thomas had to see to believe. In fact he had to feel to believe. But does touching the resurrected body of Jesus really make Thomas a believer? Or is he just a skeptic with evidence?

When our first child was born (and perhaps even before), Ken and I had the big “to Santa or not to Santa” discussion. We both agreed that we never wanted to lie to our kids, under any circumstances, and it just seemed wrong to make an exception for an elf – even if he had been an elf who loomed large in our own childhoods. Some of my siblings have talked about the disillusionment they felt when they discovered the truth about Santa and how this shook their faith in parental honesty. I never felt that way at all. If anything, when I found out what they had been up to, I was blown away by the years of effort and selflessness it took for my parents to maintain the myth. Perhaps there was no enchanted sleigh or flying reindeer, but my parents worked some serious magic to buy presents for 9 children on a teacher’s salary and keep it all a secret for as long as they did. Being a selfish, manipulative mother myself, I doubt I could ever pull it off even if I wanted to. I strive to keep my kids keenly aware of every sacrifice I make on their behalf. No way am I going to let anybody else – especially a make-believe somebody else – take the credit.

Ken and I have told the kids that Santa Claus is a wonderful symbol of generosity, but just a symbol. We remind them that some of their friends may believe in Santa so they should be careful not to spoil things for them. We also try to downplay the material aspects of the holiday and focus on the spiritual ones. In the end, I have been surprised at how easy it has been to simply leave Santa out of the picture. We don’t mention him. The kids don’t seem to miss him. And Christmas morning is still full of delight, stockings, surprises, and presents out the wazoo (so much for downplaying the material). One thing I do love is that my boys are more excited to see how their siblings will like the presents they picked out for them than to see what they are getting.

Still, in the very act of congratulating myself for blockading our chimney from the delivery of Santa-baggage, I am wondering if my kids are someday going to resent me for it. In 15 years they’ll probably be blogging away about how their mom deprived them of Christmas magic and stole their childhood. And I’m not sure I would blame them. So much of adulthood is about being practical and cynical. What if they would prefer at least a few years of childish illusion before they enter too soon into the “real” world – a world where plenty of people will lie to them, not out of love or a sense of tradition, but to sell them something or earn their vote. My children have the rest of their lives to be skeptics. What’s the rush?

13 comments:

allysha said...

That's a tricky one. When asked about Santa, I turn the question and ask "what do you think?" Although I do perpetuate the myth. But I love Santa and what he can represent. My kids believe, but if I had chosen to do it differently, I would like it to be like your family, where Santa is known as a generous spirit and wonderful story that helps us celebrate Christmas. Merry Christmas, Julie!

Anonymous said...

I have family on both sides of the Santa fence. My cousins do not do Santa and their kids are fine. They actually use the stockings as part of an advent tradition of getting a small surprise each day leading up to Christmas. My mother on the other hand still REALLY believes in Santa. Many times she asks for an impossible gift and she recieves it against the odds. My dad will happen to be at an odd store at the exact minute someone happens to return the hard to find sought after item. I have doubted his ability to find things only to be surprised myself when Santa brings it for her year after year. As for the painting- another one I had never seen! Merry Christmas.

meno said...

You know what? I just don't think it's that big of a deal either way. You love your kids and you make Christmas feel special for them. That's all good.

Bernita said...

I worked the symbol of loving and giving angle too.
Merry Christmastide!

Anonymous said...

I love celebrating the magic of the Christmas season - with whatever slant you are comfortable with taking. A great children's book that I love on this topic is "I Believe in Santa Claus" by Diane Adamson.

Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

While my kids are believers, what you've expressed here is also valid and sound. I think it's a personal choice and that you've made a good one. And no matter what we do or how good our intentions are, there's always going to be SOMETHING our kids blame on us. Until they become parents themselves...LOL!

Merry Christmas!

Kimberly said...

What a thought-provoking post! Neil and I had the Santa discussion even before we discussed marriage, and we're still at an impasse. Emma's two and a half this Christmas, so I think next year is going to be our critical year.

I like how your family has done it. It keeps the magic of Christmas alive without any hint of deception (which I just can't get comfortable with no matter how I rationalize it). Thanks for the insight!

LaughingElk said...

No, Virginia, there isn't a Santa Claus

When I found out that Santa was fake, I wondered what else my parents had lied to me about. I wondered if God was another thing that adults tell kids about, but don't really believe themselves.

I wanted to raise my children without the Santa myth. My wife had some reservations, but this is one of those parenting issues you have to go one way or the other on, so she agreed with me.

We told the kids (ages 4 and 6) that Santa is an imaginary person, "like Dora the Explorer". They had no problem grasping this concept. They still watch movies about Santa, and occasionally they'll sit on Santa's lap, but they know if they want something specific for Christmas, they need to ask Mom or Dad, not Santa. If they don't get the expensive present they asked for, they know it's because Mom and Dad couldn't afford it, not because Santa forgot them, or because even though they tried to be good, they just weren't good enough. I don't get the advantage of making Santa the Bad Cop, "Okay kids, you'd better go to bed right now, or Santa won't bring you anything!" But I don't have to make up weird stories either, "Well, honey, Santa can't bring you a pony because, um, it won't fit in his sleigh..."

The big problem so far is adults. Some well-meaning busybody will lean down and ask my kids "Are you excited about Christmas? Is Santa going to come to your house and bring you lots of presents?" and the kids say, "No, just Mom and Dad," and the adult stares at me like I'm some sort of monster.

I'm a bit concerned that when other parents find out I'm the Grinch, they might not let their children play with mine, because my kids might tell. I guess I could tell my children that if their friends believe in Santa, it's not nice to spoil the secret, but once you've made the decision that you aren't going to lie to your kids about Santa, it sort of follows that you can't ask your kids to lie either.

Maybe some day our children will tell their therapists that we ruined their childhood, but at the moment they seem fine. They aren't lacking any imagination or wonder in their lives. My son has conversations with robots he makes out of Lego, and my daughter can turn into a magic kitty. And it feels great to be able to tell my children, "Mom and I have never lied to you about anything".

Julie said...

Thanks Scott! You insist that you don't have time for your own blog, but you make these incredibly thoughtful comments on mine. When are you going to give in and come over to the dark side?

Moobs said...

If you believe in God I think telling your children about Santa is a bad idea. First, itdraws attention away from what Christmas is really about and secondly when the inevitable happens and they find out he does not exists it causes your children to wonder whether you meant all that stuff about the Lord Almighty too.

I love Caravaggio too, partly for the chiaoscuru but mostly for his bravery with models and the way the "realism" of it makes one ponder the reality of the events depicted.

Ruth said...

I'm a bit late on this (behind in the blog reading) but felt I needed to comment. I'm one of the kids who never believed in Santa (I'm now 33). My mother refused to tell us about Santa because she was devestated to realise at 9 that her parents had been lying to her and she swore not to do that to her own kids. We also learnt that Santa was a symbol (and not to tell other children this - my brother earned himself at least one spanking for 'witnessing' as he called it).

I don't feel cheated. I can't imagine waking up on Christmas and not thanking my mother for what she gave us. We are planning on teaching our (future) children the same thing, particularly since we make finding and supporting a charity a big part of our chirstmas celebrations every year and I want my children to learn that Christmas is about giving. Too often (in my experience) for the Santa believing children Christmas is all about what they can GET from the magic man in the red suit and not about what they can give.

just a few thoughts...

Anonymous said...

I think you could go either way and it depends on the kids. I'm not really sure when I found out there was no Santa, so apparently, it didn't devastate me too greatly. I didn't doubt my parents because they "lied" about Santa. I think once you find out, most children are old enough to grasp the concept of pretending, just like the tooth fairy. On the other hand, I think your approach is nice too. Honestly, my 4 year old didn't know which present came from whom, so it wasn't that big of a deal.

Sandra Tayler said...

I'm so glad to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't teach Santa to her kids. I was going to blog on this topic myself, but now I can just point everyone here cause all the points I wanted to make are here.