Friday, August 10, 2007

reality v. make-believe

Parents face a choice. Do they teach their children that there really is a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or even such other creatures as elves, mermaids, fairies, gnomes, etc...? Or do they teach their children that such creatures are make-believe: fantasies and pleasant stories that bring joy, amusement, and delight.

Some do. Some don't.

I wonder if you can guess which category I fall into?


My children have created a game of make-believe: a world they have created entirely on their own and popluated with all kinds of fantastical creatures and special abilities. They play it regularly and often for several hours at a time.

One of my daughter's classes this year is an Introduction to Metaphysics (nature of the universe as a whole) and Epistemology (nature and the means of human knowledge). During her second class she asked if learning philosophy would ruin their pretend game.

One atheist mother who does teach that fantasy characters are real said this of her decision, "I love leading my kids on and promoting their belief in them all. I actively encourage it. I pacify that hypocritical pang because I figure in the long run, its part of the whole childhood thing of working out reality vs. make-believe for themselves.

I am having trouble reconciling this view with the notion held by many atheists that children should not be exposed to religion before they are old enough to decide for themselves the difference between real and make-believe, between faith and reason, between belief and scientific knowledge. Shouldn't our job as parents be to make it as obvious as possible the difference between real and pretend?

Being a parent is hard. The older they get, the harder it is, because the consequences are so much more long-lasting. If you screw up when the child is one year old, there is a minimal chance they will remember it. If you screw up when the child is older, not only will they remember it and ask questions about it, but there is the potential for them being scarred for life by it. All this stress over the long term consequences of possible minor mishaps.

How about something as important to a child as Santa Claus?

Santa does not exist. That's right Virginia; he's a story, a fantasy. That does not mean kids who don't believe in Santa can't enjoy Christmas.

My mate and I never lied to our children about fantasy creatures- any of them. We told them fantasy characters like Santa are a delightful pretend; a story that is told in December; a fantasy game, if you will, that people play because it makes the time special, mysterious, and exciting.

Do we pretend that Santa comes on Christmas Eve night and leaves presents? Yes

Have my children enjoyed the holiday any less knowing that Mom and Dad are really Santa Claus? No. I don't think so.

Will my children ever have to find out the hard way that ["Pssst....Do you believe in Santa Claus? You do? Ha ha!!!! You're such a baby! Everyone knows Santa is just your parents!"] their parents' have been lying to them? No

Always I've tried to be honest with my two. Honest about having a bad day or when I need time to myself. Honest about their own emotional experiences, the physical changes their bodies go through, sex, even the meaning behind sly adult innuendo that they overhear.

As an atheist parent, this pretending about Santa et al. causes a special dilemma for me. By encouraging them to PRETEND to believe in Santa Claus and participating in that game of pretend myself....have I still done them a disservice?

I went through years of my life pretending to be a christian. Forbidding myself to look hard at the bible and ask the difficult questions. Shutting off my mind and trying to only feel with my heart. I never got to the born-again stage of christianity. But I certainly beliebed that I was a christian. Up until I was 13 the only place I'd come in contact with the idea of being born-again was in religious fiction like the books of Janette Oke. Many of her characters experience "born-again" moments so I had an idea of what emotions were involved in the experience, expectations of what could and should happen. The thoughts that the characters had as they accepted jesus as their savior.

I think that is why, when I tried twice to be born-again myself that I waited passively for those feelings to come to me. For the emotions that I thought would announce my....rebirth. When they didn't happen, I felt morally obligated to pretend that they had so as not to embarrass or disappoint the person I was with.

Have I left my own children vulnerable to pretending to believe? For faking a belief in something to please people around me? Have I left them vulnerable to pretending to believe in god?

The answer her teacher gave about whether philosophy would ruin their pretend game was "No, for the most part it will not. You already have a firm grasp on the difference between real and make-believe, so nothing will change."


Telmeimrong said...

Saint Nicholas was real, he gave gifts to the poor. Santa Claus is our modern Saint Nick.
I won't lie to my child either though.

janice said...

What an interesting look inside your life beyond the "blog."

I understand the "why" you've decided to raise your children in such a logical and reason based way.

I have a question (of course).

Have you explained to them that others do believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny, God, etc.
Then explained to them why some believe and asked them not to reveal the truth to, say, younger children (in or out of your family) who are being raise in Christian homes?

Richard said...

Father Christmas was real to me, because I met the real one when I was eight.

I DID SO!! You just don't know!

Why was he so real? I spent one winter in a tiny town in Northern Ontario, called Gogama. Once winter struck, all roads in and out of town were closed, with rail being the only access.

Our home was a winterized cottage: 4 rooms, outhouse, electric lights and a phone, hand pump for water, a cellar (with an ice box for a fridge in summer), and two wood stoves burning railway ties. We were not allowed out in the evenings because the wolf pack came by regularly to see if they could get one of our goats or chickens.

I was in Grade Two in a one room school house. There was one teacher, one row for each grade, and the Indian kids always sat at the back. They also had to come in early and get the wood furnace burning to warm the building for us white kids. The strap was the preferred method for discipline. I was not allowed to speak with my English accent.

By the time Xmas came we had had several nights that were about -15 Fahrenheit. This Xmas Eve was a shocker... -30 F by 11pm. Dad left our little cottage at 11:15 to help the minister with final preparations for the midnight service. A neighbour brought Mum, my brother and me to the church.

After the service with its lovely hymns lauding baby Jesus we headed straight to bed. The ***magic*** Day would really start in the morning,. We slipped into our heavy flannel pajama's without taking off our longjohns, and carefully placed our clothes under our eiderdown bedspread so they would be warm in the morning (ice sometimes formed in pots by the kitchen sink... Dad always drained the hand pump and re-primed it in the morning).

Had we been asleep? Maybe, but suddenly Mum was waking us up:

"It's Father Christmas! He's HERE!"

Mum had warmed a patch of kitchen window with her hand, so the ice cleared enough that we could see the huge man on the dog sled, with a huge bag, and with bells jingling around the dogs' necks.

We waited breathlessly for him to come to the door. We could hear the Ho Ho Ho's and could just make out that he was hunting through his bag. Then he was at the open door. Icy air poured into the kitchen instantly freezing the indoor moisture. I had never heard of dry ice then, but I might as well have been on stage surrounded by its mist.

Gosh, Father Christmas knew our names and knew what we wanted. Our eyes were bugged right out of our heads. I was speechless, but my little brother asked why he hadn't come with his sleigh and reindeer. "Oh Ho Ho, I keep the reindeer fresh for flying South, up here I use my wonderful huskies."

As he left, he called out, "It's always a happier Christmas when the Northern Lights are bright." The clamoring dogs seemed every bit as gleeful as he gee-hawed them from our clearing.

Were the Northern Lights brilliant? If you've not seen a full display, there is little like it: brilliant, sweeping, rippling tapestries and columns of purples reds and greens; brilliant stars above shine through like sparklers in a silent fireworks display. So what if it’s cold. It’s still!

Did I believe in Santa Claus? Damn straight I did.

Yes, I felt quite let down when I learned he was not real... but by that time I was getting suspicious that J.C. could not also be the Holy Ghost and God too. We weren't supposed to believe in ghosts so why were we supposed to believe in a Holy Ghost? I found that stuff just too confusing to keep straight, so I preferred to look stupid with my mouth shut, rather than open it and prove it.

My kids were told Santa was made up after a man who loved kids and gave them lots of gifts at Xmas. They learned that parents play games with their kids to make Xmas seem more magical. That many parents want their kids to think Santa is real, the same way they want their kids to think the stories of God and Jesus are real. I admonished them to leave that matter to the parents, because it is not our business to spoil the way they want to do things, nor is it their business to make you believe their pretend stuff.

Have I lost something magical from my life by rejecting Santa magic. NO!

There is better 'magic' in the real world:
• success pursuing one's higher values,
• a genuine lover,
• my daughter's meaningful hug,
• the aurora borealis and the mechanism that makes it happen,
• medicine, that mended my daughter's fractured arm & elbow joint, and my herniated disc.
• agriculture that gives me bananas and pink grapefruit (etc.) 365 days a year
• that I can send this off in seconds to people who care, whom I have never met!

Of course, the full list is enormous and must never stop growing. Thank-you Aristotle, Francis Bacon, Locke, Newton (born Dec 25th), Jefferson and the Founders! You showed us the right path, and Rand has shone a brilliant 'light' upon it.

Reg Golb said...

Richard, do you remember the saying "fur is dead"? Since we are talking about reality and make-believe, so is medicine. Medicine doesn't heal anything. Medicine is a bunch of chemicals. Your body can use medicine to heal itself, but the medicine can't heal.

Fiery said...

telmeimrong- Welcome to my blog!

Janice- It is part of the game of pretend to not constantly talk about the fact that you are pretending. No my kids aren't the ones breaking the news to other kids.

Richard- must revise mistaken assumption on your current age- if only there was a profile to refer to. Hmmmmm. Thank you for sharing that wonderful christmas story. Ever thought of making it into a children's book?

Um....reg? I think the term you are looking for is pharmaceuticals.

Doctors practice "medicine"- the maintaining or restoring of human health through its study, diagnosis, and treatment. (wikipedia)

Ginny said...

Santa does not exist. That's right Virginia; he's a story, a fantasy. That does not mean kids who don't believe in Santa can't enjoy Christmas.

Darn and all this time I thought he was've totally ruined Christmas for me Fiery! *Stomps off indignantly* ;)

Actually when I found out Santa wasn't real...around the age of 7 or 8...I was pretty upset about it! I was a little furious too for being lied to all those years.

I never told my kids Santa was real. I didn't want them to think I was a liar when they found out otherwise and start to doubt other things I told them. Of course this didn't stop us from enjoying Christmas by any means...neither does my atheism.

Once I was in the grocery store and my daughter who was three at the time told another little girl in the checkout line that Santa wasn't real. I got awful looks from that child's mother and all I could think was Gee lady if you didn't lie to your kids you wouldn't have to be so pissed off at me now.

Reg Golb said...

I stand corrected. I wasn't thinking clearly. Oh, by the way, thank you for allowing my post to stay. You are a gracious host.

Fiery said...

The reality is reg, that when you behave on my blog, the comment stays on my blog.

This is a more rational side of you, this side is welcome to come out and play on my blog.

Ginny- sorry about the use of Virginia- it was a call back to that old newspaper letter, I've thought of you as Ginny so long I totally forgot that it might seem directed at you. ;-)