Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Tooth Fairy

atheist parent

When the kids were small I was far more uncertain of how to be a truly secular woman, how to be an atheist parent of integrity. Just as you do, I thought and thought about how to handle every single thing, especially those customary cultural things that everyone does with their kids in this country.

Santa, Halloween, Easter bunnies, the Tooth Fairy, fairies:  all of those dandy little magical stories we tell our children were swirling around in my head, begging to be considered.

I wanted to be honest and I wanted the kids to have the fun that the stories offer. How to attain both goals of honesty and fun?

The motley crew of
pretend we played.
My daughter was a huge fan of fairies. She believed in them fiercely. We had a small white ceramic house on the front porch that she would sometimes leave small notes in for the fairies to find. Sometimes they would leave her tiny treasures from nature. Personally I lost my taste for the ruse the morning we discovered a cockroach had taken shelter from the rainy night in the little ceramic house. But Elizabeth was in love with the fairies.

I remember the morning she woke up and ran into the room where I was. She was shouting with excitement Mom, I heard the fairy music last night just outside of my window!

I was struggling with the knowledge that I was perpetuating a false bit of magic. I tried so hard to be honest and to keep her mind free of falsehood. In fact, I remember my mom being very confrontational with me in those days with regard to my willingness to pretend fairies while being fully unwilling to pretend in a deity.

The Same Boat? 

I know that you, Dear Thinking Parents Reading This Blog Post, completely understand where I was going in those days. I got lost all over the landscape of how to handle these ongoing fantasies and my mother continued to point out the many places where I tripped over my own efforts of honesty and fun.

Knowing that magical thinking is a perfectly normal and healthy part of child development went a long way in helping me work my way through the struggles I was having. 

Eventually I decided that I was willing to play pretend and to appreciate that my daughter's magical thinking was very normal and natural and that I would roll with it until the first moment she displayed sincere effort to know what was real. For a period, the magic was real for her. I clearly remember the day she talked herself into believing that she could control the wind. The wind moved and she went with the magic without any outside suggestion. For months she and John John moved the wind with glee. 

Suddenly, Clarity 

One day we were driving down the highway, Elizabeth in her usual thoughtful way looking out the window. Suddenly she asked me, Momma, is there really a Tooth Fairy? I asked her if she truly wanted to know the truth and she assured me she did saying, It really doesn't make sense, does it, Momma?


A few more minutes passed as I waited to see what would happen next in Elizabeth's mind. She looked at me with tears in her eyes...the Easter Bunny? Fairies? Santa Claus?

The house of cards we had built came tumbling down in a matter of about ten minutes. She was angry at the deception for about two weeks. I had heard about kids getting angry when they figured it out but I had never seen such a thing until this child. She was angry that her dad and I would deceive her in such a way.

Two weeks later she was smiling and secretly colluding with me to continuing playing the acts for John. 

A few years later Elizabeth and I were revisiting the moment of reveal and how it had made her feel. I asked her if, now that she knows the truth, she would have preferred playing the games or sticking with reality. I explained the struggle that I had with all of that. She smiled and understood. 

I'm glad we did it, Mom.


  1. I remember being in that place too. I was so angry when I found out that Santa wasn't real. And I came upon it by accident. I found the Santa gift list (Santa gifts were always left unopened) and it was in my older sister's handwriting. I was 11 and when I did ask, my mom would lamely quote, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause." Back then, I was very much a black and white thinker so I was pretty mad about it. But looking back, the pretending was fun. I just wish they had been more honest with me when I had asked.

    Since John doesn't celebrate Christmas or Easter, it's a little more touchy here. The girls get involved and I do do the tooth fairy thing (when I think about it, this tooth fairy is often broke!). I've done Santa Claus too but very low key and my older daughter does know he doesn't really exist. Not sure about my younger daughter.

    What do you do about things that aren't so friendly? Natalie, who is 10, is afraid of ghosts and is convinced our house is haunted. Sometimes, because of it, she's afraid to sleep at night and wants to sleep in our room. I don't believe in ghosts and neither does her dad but she's pretty convinced they exist and live here.

    1. Janeen, thanks for commenting.
      That's part of the problem, yes, that if you claim supernatural you open yourself up to the scary ideas too... :(
      I remember my daughter, at a young age, being frightened of scary things in her room. In fact, I remember my step daughter having the same fear...both about ages 7-11. I made up a bottle of water with some of my perfume and, boom, we sprayed Monster Spray around the room, with the comforting and familiar scent of me.

      Read the Magical Thinking link in my blog post and you will see that Natalie is at the ripe age for it. The imagination is strong and kids are becoming more aware of their own powerlessness in the wide, wide world.

      Three thoughts come to mind.

      1. Fight magical thinking with magical interventions. Create something that is safe, a dream catcher type of thing. A picture of you holding her in a frame. Something she can hold in her hand. Art around her bed that feels protective... Seems counterintuitive, probably, but reality and logic aren't at work here.

      2. Reality and logic. ;)
      During the day time, when the fear isn't happening, talk about Natalie's fears, reminding her that monsters and ghosts and all nature of scary ideas are all fictional and imaginary. Include lots of other creatures that she knows are fictional: Zeus, Sauron, Ganesh, whatever she knows for certain to be imaginary. Include ghosts in that list whenever you discuss it. No flying horses, no unicorns, no little green men, no ghosts.

      With time and love she will find her way out of the fear.

      3. Replace the ghost idea with something comforting.
      What would you think about playing comforting music at bedtime? I have a couple of ideas for CDs if you are interested. The idea is that the music be relaxing, soothing, and familiar. Listen to the music during the day too, in the background of your day, during hugs or reading time. Music that can be connected to feelings of safety and tranquility.

      ...Just a few thoughts off of the top of my head. <3


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