Fairy handkerchiefs.
September 29, 2011

WHAT?, Charlotte has been asking me as we watch spiders slide across their webs in the morning.  Spider-webs, I keep telling her.  And I explain how they are built and why and whenever I see a spider wrapping its prey I bring her over and let her watch.

When I was growing up, my parents told me the same tall tales about the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy that millions of kids grow up on.  Eventually one of my classmates debunked the myths I’d been encouraged to believe.  So I went home and playfully asked my parents whether or not Santa Claus really existed.

My parents told me the truth.  No, they said, Santa doesn’t really exist.  It’s what he represents that matters.  There may have been a man who inspired the stories we’ve told you but he died a very long time ago.  We tell stories about Santa for the same reason that we make up silly songs – for fun.

I was surprised but I got over it.  I was never traumatized by my parents encouraging me to believe in leprechauns and giant jolly elves and I never minded that they’d lied.  My trust in them never wavered and my interest in fun stories continued unabated.

But to hear it from other people I know, finding out that their parents lied to them about some whimsical something or another was devastating.

I worry about that.  I worry about where to draw the line between encouraging the whimsical nature of a young child and flat-out lying.  Now that Charlotte is old enough to enjoy stories I’ve found that a fun way of showing her this world is to call upon the fantasies I fell in love with as a child.  Mermaids, gnomes, selkies, talking animals.  I always knew how I would handle stories about the Tooth Fairy and her fantastical buddies, but until last week I’d never given a second thought to how I was going to handle smaller myths.  Everyday myths.

Like making believe in friendly kid-sized dinosaurs.

Last week, that’s what it all comes down to.  Because last week, Charlotte asked for the millionth time about the spider-webs glistening with morning dew.  WHAT IS THIS? she asked.  It’s a spider-web, I told her.  YES, she said.  IS SPIDER-WEB.

Then I knelt down.  You know what someone told me when I was a little girl?, I asked her.  They told me that spider-webs were fairy handkerchiefs.

And with that, I planted the seed of wonder.  Her eyes got big.  You and I know that spider-webs are made by spiders to catch bugs to eat, I continued, but isn’t that a fun story?

She’s been calling them spider fairy HAY-NER-CHIFS ever since.  MADE BY SPIDERS, she says.  FOR EATING BUGS.  But she’s also been asking about fairies, and I’ve been filling her head with nonsense.  I tell her that these are stories, but I know that she doesn’t understand the difference between fact and fiction the way that I do.  Not yet.  You’re only a kid once, I figure.  Might as well enjoy a little magic while you can.

So you tell me: is that wrong?

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  1. By Jessica on September 29, 2011

    I believe you did it just right…mixing in the very real with the fantastical. The other day, after talking about my magic paintbrush, a kindergarten student said there is no such thing as magic. It broke my heart! Children should be able to find magic in the very real world. Life would be rather dull without it!!!

  2. By Sara on September 29, 2011

    I think this is perfect! You’re only young once - and you seem to have a healthy mix of fairy-tale and fiction. If you only told fact, you’d never help develop Charlotte’s imagination.

  3. By on September 29, 2011

    MY brother claims to have been traumatized when he found out Santa didn’t exist. I honestly don’t remember him going through it, but that’s not to say it didn’t happen. That being said, we had two half-brothers who are significantly younger than us and so my parents refused to acknowledge that Santa didn’t exist well into our teen years - I guess for fear that we’d ruin it for them? Not to mention our parents are divorced and we had my mom telling us at one age he didn’t exist and my dad telling us at another that he did. I think that incorporating make-believe and imagination in your child’s life is awesome - but at the same time, you need to be there to ‘catch them when they fall’ and realize that this whole world of magic you’ve created isn’t QUITE what you made it out to be. I think as long as you have that loving-supportive relationship, you don’t have to worry about your daughter being traumatized by finding out it was all made-up. Not to mention I love that you didn’t say ‘they ARE fairy handkerchiefs’ you presented it as an idea “when I was younger, someone told me…“ seems so much more magical and leaves room for her to make what she wants out of it.

  4. By on September 29, 2011

    I worked with a girl one summer. She was nearly 10 years old and she was the kindest, most well rounded, most engaging child I have met to date, but the other girls didn’t like her. Because she believed in fairies. She didn’t let it get her down though,she built fairy houses with the younger girls, telling them stories about the different kinds of fairies, what they ate, what they looked like, what they might leave you as thanks for building them a home. To her own age group she may have been a bit of an outcast but to the little ones she was a celebrity, an encyclopedia of all things fanciful. When I asked her if she really believed in them or if she just did it for the younger kids she gave me this look like I was being silly and said “It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. That’s not what believing is about.“ I’ve always though she told me what was what on the matter.
    So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling your kids fairy tales. From what I can tell it makes them into wonderfully interesting people down the line. And it seems to me they eventually figure out on their own what’s real and what likely isn’t, and they won’t hate you for letting them believe.
    And for the record I took Santa not being real just fine. My mother told my brother and I when we asked that he was not real. We’d both been certain that he wasn’t anyway and went right back to what we’d been doing. Today my brother will tell you this was the most traumatizing moment of his life, that he stared at our mother in horror, cried for days. I’ve heard him tell this story yet I distinctly remember him saying “I knew it!“ smiling at his cleverness and practically dragging me from the room to go play king of the hill. Some trauma…

  5. By Sarah S on September 29, 2011

    I think it’s the right thing for sure! Childhood is the only time you really truly believe in the magic and I can’t stand to take that away from my kids. When my daughter asked me if fairies were REALLY REAL I just explained that they were something that no one had ever seen or photographed and there was no scientific proof but that some people believed they were. I hope that answer allowed her to believe as long as she wants.

  6. By Alicia S. on September 29, 2011

    I had the most wonderful conversation about this after starting Harry Potter with my three-year-old.

    I planted the idea of Santa Clause in my son’s head at about the same time I helped debunk it for my step-daughter. (She came to the conclusion on her own, but I let her know that it was okay to accept it, and that she could join in the fun of passing Santa Clause down to her little brother—which eventually becomes even more fun than believing it yourself.) It was a lot of fun to watch because just as Christmas was starting to lose it’s luster for her, putting it that way revamped her excitement all over again. I can sympathize with the argument of not wanting to lie to our children, but even understanding that: it just seemed so cynical to lump something so wonderfully imaginative with cold, hard un-truth like that to my two-year old. I just imagined him being the kid on the kindergarten bus to school, sucking the soul out of Christmas for other kids by making fun of them for believing. I couldn’t do it.

    But then, when do you let go, and how, and why then? I definitely struggled with figuring out what was right for our family.

    THEN, we started reading Harry Potter, and everything came together. We talked about magic all the time—what was magic (which isn’t real) and what was science (which is sometimes just as unbelievable but is very real). We also talked about the difference between magic and miracles, which, coming after a summer spent frequently visiting both his sister and then immediately afterward, his father at the hospital during extended inpatient stays for very serious illnesses and injuries, couldn’t have come at a more important time.

    But mostly we talked about how sometimes believing in impossible things can make things we thought were impossible really happen, and about how some of it is just pretend—the product of wonderful imaginations coming together to make stories that serve to inspire us, even if we don’t believe them. We talked about how important it is to keep our imaginations healthy by giving them lots and lots of exercise (pretending) and how every great invention or creation or idea in this world came from the mind of someone with a big, strong, healthy imagination.

    I hope that by laying a foundation like this, that whenever he does learn, he’s equipped to appreciate what it is he gained from the experience.

  7. By Jeneva on September 29, 2011

    Love it! Soon I plan to make a fairy garden with the kids and start those same magical thoughts.

  8. By Amber on September 29, 2011

    Sarah, without imagination, I am convinced we are deficient as human beings. I say, help her develop that imagination. As an only child, I have one of the most well developed imaginations I know, but my belief in the fantastical has never interfered with my thirst for concrete knowledge. I have never had trouble distinguishing between fantasy & reality and I never really understand when older kids & even adults have this problem,.

  9. By Catherine on September 29, 2011

    Nope, not wrong at all!  Magical thinking is important!  It foster’s creativity and imagination.  I know that at one point I believed in Santa and all that, but do not ever recall being traumatized when I “figured it out”.  My parents didn’t make a huge huge deal trying to hide “the truth” from me and we used to play that there were elves in the forest behind our home and even though I “knew” there were not, I believed because it was fun.  I used to believe unicorns would come and eat from my hand and I’d sit in the woods singing and waiting for them, and I never truly expected to see them, but I could pretend in my mind and that pleased me.  I hope hope hope hope that my children have that kind of imagination. 
    I agree with Amber, above, on everything she said.  To me, my imagination has entertained me, cheered me, and helped me become the person I am today.

  10. By on September 29, 2011

    I think you’re definitely in the right. When I was a little kid, I read A LOT, causing me to believe in fairies and other “magical” things. It did me no harm, in fact, I was very imaginative and would create stories about them. There was no one traumatizing moment when I realized these things did not exist, I just grew out of it. A kid should be able to dream and imagine and think about possibilities when s/he still has the open-minded capacity of a young person and doesn’t have to worry about other things.

  11. By Bethany on September 29, 2011

    When my Olivia was born, I was given a plaque to display in her room - “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.“ - Albert Einstein. Pretty powerful!

  12. By on September 29, 2011

    Personally I think childhood is the time for fairies and talking animals (the whole lot). The real world comes soon enough.

  13. By on September 29, 2011

    I have thought about this a lot.  I was devastated when my parents told me Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and my husband and I are not planning on perpetuating that myth with our children (to each their own, though, of course).  I think Christmas can still be a magical time even without Santa.  With regard to other myths, we will treat them as fun stories, as it sounds like you’re doing with Charlotte.

  14. By Heather on September 29, 2011

    I took a child development class, that taught that magic is an important step in childhood development. Of course, that was just one lady’s belief.

    Anyway, we tell the stories. None of the kids are traumatized. I was never told about Santa. I always wished I could of believed.

    Even though our boys no longer believe, we all still pretend. We enjoy the magic, even as they are older. We make the magic, but the magic is all around us.

  15. By Sarah@Crazy Love Gamble-Style on September 29, 2011

    I say keep the magic alive for as long as you can!

    I thought you might like this:


  16. By Sarah Christensen on September 29, 2011

    Bethany - BEST. QUOTE. EVER.

    Alisa - We don’t plan on perpetuating Santa either, but that’s mostly because we don’t like good kid/bad kid part of the myth, we don’t like the societal pressure associated with Santa, and we also aren’t really in the habit of doing Christmas gifts which is a huge part of the Santa myth.  It simply doesn’t make sense for us, although we have at various times worried about how to allow Charlotte to share in the same traditions as many of our relatives, traditions that bind us together, without having a big Santa presence.  We also do like the St. Nicolas tradition of placing your shoes out on the 5th or 6th of December and finding them filled with sweets/toys/a book/garden seeds/whatever.  As well, we have a friend who has an ‘elf’ visit her house throughout the month of December.  The elf gives the family a task each day, but also reminds them of the lessons they’ve learned, the things they did well and the things they improved, how they’ve displayed the spirit of the holidays year-round, etc.  The focus is on family togetherness, story telling, and character.  We’ve been toying with merging the various holiday traditions we like with that concept - and telling Charlotte that these are fun stories and games associated with the holidays - but I don’t think we’ll tell her it’s real.  I haven’t found a single person who was devastated when they found out leprechauns and unicorns didn’t exist but several people I know seem to have been very upset by finding out about Santa or the Tooth Fairy.

    I’m banking on the idea that part of the reason those are so devastating is because the entire society encourages us to believe them, so not only do our parents lie to us about it (sometimes far longer than maybe they should) but other people do too.  It’s a complete betrayal, whereas kids are routinely told over and over again that unicorns don’t exist.  They believe in unicorns because it’s fun to believe in unicorns, but they always sort of know it isn’t true, and people are honest with them as they grow older, and then they gradually grow out of it.

    I could be totally wrong about that, but that’s the best guess I’ve got =P

  17. By Alicia S. on September 30, 2011

    Good point about the Unicorns! And those are some great alternative traditions too. I’ve personally heard more stories about kids being traumatized by finding out about Santa Clause from other children than I have about them being told from their parents, which is where the fear I had came from. It feels like the kids I knew growing up who never beleived in Satna were taught to think all of it was ridiculous, and so that’s how a lot of kids I know who did beleive found out—by being told it was stupid to beleive.

    I think it’s such an awesome idea to make these traditions a part of her life, even without encouraging her to beleive that they’re real. It focuses on the tradition and fun of it without putting all of that pressure into it.





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