Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Parenting Mistake from 1987

As a young person, I always knew I wanted to have kids. Thus, I often envisaged how I’d parent my kids and, at the ripe old age of 17, I made up my mind to never lie to them, ever.

Even at that young age I’d already seen too many adults afraid to share the real truth with their kids, afraid that the truth would be too much and scare or hurt them. So, they told half-truths, or little white lies, or skirted the issue. It always burned my ass that they just didn’t come clean and fess up with their kids, sharing all the honest, even painful truths that they’d learned after so many decades of experience. If they were just upfront from the get-go, I surmised, they wouldn’t have to expend all that energy reinforcing lies, coming up with excuses, sidestepping repeated requests to understand, and – ultimately – avoid the painful moment when a kid confronts you with not only the real truth, but their disbelief that the adult either didn’t know it, or wouldn’t share that information. No topic would be taboo, I thought: drinking, sex, politics, war, even – perhaps most dangerous of all – Santa Claus.
Lillian's letter to Santa from 2012

Since I had it all figured out at the ripe and wizened ole’ age of 17, I thought that even when it came to Santa Claus I would never lie. After all, your child WILL find out eventually, right? Why then lie to them and continue to foment a myth, one that they’ll someday be crushed to find the truth about? Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, I was going to be straight up about all of them.

When Lillian first started to emerge out of baby-dom and start to get a sense of the world around her, Sally and I never even brought up Santa. We didn’t have to. Soon Lillian was coming home from daycare with joyous glee in her eyes, talking about how Santa comes to our house and brings toys on Christmas! Sally and I just looked at each other knowing, I think, in that moment, that we were going to have to let the Santa thing ride.

And let it ride we did.

Lillian (and eventually Sylvia too) became just frenetic as the build up to Christmas came. They both rambled on about Santa and the joy and excitement in their eyes was just amazing. It was truly magical, and their belief brought abundant joy to our home. Suddenly we had special, hidden wrapping paper for the ‘presents from Santa’. We helped them put out cookies and carrots on Christmas Eve. We started to even leverage their belief in Santa, telling the girls to behave because ‘Santa was watching’.

Oh, and it wasn’t just Jolly Old St. Nick, no sir. When the Tooth Fairy came, we sprinkled glitter from the window to their pillow, a trace of the fairy dust she’d left behind when she flittered in the night before.  We prepped them with reminders of the Easter Bunny coming, and how they should behave/get to bed/whatever. And, stealing an idea from one of their teachers, we even celebrated the arrival of ‘Wee Mr. McMurphy’, a leprechaun who snuck in the house on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sylvia celebrating the visit of
Wee Mr. McMurphy
Oh Mr. McMurphy was a blast. He’d pee green in the toilet (food coloring) and leave behind some green milk (food coloring). He’d play tricks on the girls, tying their shoes together, turning clothes inside-out, switching their backpacks and books around. And, perhaps best of all, the tricks took on a life of their own, as the girls started to imagine things that Mr. McMurphy had done, things that I hadn’t touched;

“Dad, Mr. McMurphy moved the tv!”

“Uh, sure. Yes he did!”

“Dad, the couch pillows are all different, he moved all the couch pillows!”

“Wow! Yeah, he did!”

But then, just a few months ago, we came to a crossroads. Sylvia started to ask if Santa was really real (while Lillian kept on beleivin’). She started to ask straight out if he was real because she had heard from some friends in school that he wasn’t. So, we skirted the issue; “Honey, Santa’s spirit is very much real.”

That worked for about two days, as you could see the soft little gears in Sylvia’s brain pondering what the hell we’d just said. So, a few days later, as she lay in her bed just before lights out, she asked again. I repeated the line about Santa's spirit, hoping it might stick. But she said pointedly, “What does that mean, his spirit is real?”

It was time. Time to uphold my pledge from 1987. I told Sylvia the truth. Then, like a cascading wall of old bricks, it all came tumbling down as she asked about the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and even Wee Mr. McMurphy. I explained that none of them were real.

Lillian mailing a letter to Santa
I left her bedroom feeling proud that I’d been truthful and had upheld my pledge of integrity. But then, as I settled into bed, the nagging feeling started. At first I couldn’t figure out what was bugging me about what had just happened, but over the days a feeling of loss and emptiness started to build.

Eventually, I realized what I’d just lost: no longer would they believe that Christmas was truly magical. No longer would benevolent spirts in bunny and fairy form come to their home with gifts and candy and glitter and Peeps in the middle of the night. And Wee Mr. McMurphy was just ‘dad’. No more wailing with glee to discover Santa’s presents. No more inspecting the fairy dust left behind by fairies. No more racing around the house in absolute joy, looking for more evidence of leprechauns. We had lost the magic. And there was no getting it back.

I started to become truly depressed, and deeply regretted my decision. But it was too late, the truthful cat, that boring, ragged old black cat of reality, the one completely devoid of holiday magic, was out of the bag.

Every parent makes mistakes, of course, and I'm certainly no exception. But this one, this one I might regret the most.

First, in 1987, I should have realized I didn’t know a damn thing when it came to how I would eventually parent my kids.

Second, in 2014, I should have lied my ass off.


  1. Great story Chris! I carry on myself the secret of Santa being real as well, although my 10 year old son asked me a few months ago about it. Just wanna keep the magic to continue!

  2. Great story! Kept me engaged the whole time. I think you had the right idea at age 17 though. Im 28 with my first son on the way next month. I just want him to know the value of a dollar, and too be that kid that has these "rumors" at school.