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Lying About the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and the Tooth Fairy

A Dr. Laura Markham answers a question from a mom who feels guilty about lying to her 8-year-old about the Tooth Fairy:

Most psychologists suggest that children need to know they can trust their parents to tell them the truth, even about things like this.  In other words, when your kids ask if Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny are real, you should tell them the truth.

That’s not always easy, of course.  We may feel we are crushing a belief that our child needs.  When my daughter was five years old, she asked me if the tooth fairy was real. When I told her no, she became very angry at me, not because I had lead her to believe that a make-believe character was real, but because she wanted so much for the tooth fairy to be real. I desperately wanted to hedge, so I know how you felt with your son. Somehow I resisted the temptation, and let her cry and rage, not just at the unfair world, but at me. Over and over, I reflected back to her how disappointed she was, and how much she wished the tooth fairy could be real, and how angry she felt at that moment at the world and at me.

My daughter is now twelve, and remembers this incident clearly. She told me recently that she thought that I did the right thing, and that she would have been even angrier at me if I had lied in response to her direct question. Even though she was disappointed that the tooth fairy wasn’t real, she thinks it was better for me to tell her the truth when she wanted to know. But I still recall my own anxiety and internal debate about whether I was doing the right thing.

Keith Humphreys, who pointed me to the story, jokes, “Personally, it’s long been my view that parents should lie to their children. Otherwise, they will be unprepared for how elected officials will treat them when they grow up.”

My dad told me the truth about Santa when I was very little, perhaps 3 or 4. I don’t recall whether I was traumatized by the news at the time; I got over it if I was. My oldest turned 3 New Year’s Eve and was very excited about Santa Claus this past Christmas but, for whatever reason, hasn’t mentioned the Easter Bunny even though she’s been excited about the approach of Easter.

My approach thus far has been to treat these characters precisely the way I do Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Dora the Explorer: they’re real characters but not real people. So, when she tells me that Santa has a beard and wears a red suit, that’s just as true as the facts that Pooh likes honey and Dora has a friend named Boots. If, on the other hand, she asks me whether Santa Claus brought her a particular present, I tell her, no, her grandmother bought it for her. This strikes me as the right balance between letting the kids enjoy their childhood and building their trust.

That said, this strikes me as one of the many cases of today’s parents being hyper concerned about trivial things. If you’re telling your 12-year-old that there’s really a Santa Claus, you’re probably a crappy parent. But your 5-your-old isn’t going to hate you forever for pretending that the Tooth Fairy left a fiver under their pillow.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. $ 5.00 for a tooth? Wow, prices really have gone up. All I used to get was an Eisenhower Dollar

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  2. Andy says:

    Trivial is about right. This is something that, at the end of the day, just doesn’t matter very much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  3. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    True, that mom with that 8 year-old kid probably should be worrying a lot more about how to pay for college and how to give that kid a fighting chance at a gainful career and a comfortable retirement and less so about telling white lies concerning the tooth fairy.

    That aside, it all depends upon the kid. Some mature a little faster. Some mature a lot slower. Some need a Dr. Spock approach. Others need to get in touch with B.F. Skinner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  4. Andy says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Still a dollar per tooth here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  5. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Hmmmm…

    You make this post on “Easter” Sunday.

    What you did there… I see it.

    (approves.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  6. As for the general topic, yea I think this is just another example of “helicopter parents” worrying about meaningless things. No, parents shouldn’t lie to children. That doesn’t also mean they should always tell the complete truth, either. It also doesn’t mean that you have to ruin a few years of childhood enjoyment because of weird concerns about lying about a giant invisible rabbit.

    At some point, I think most kids just figure it out for themselves. I know that’s how it happened with me. I forget the age but at some point I I just asked my Mom “None of this stuff is real, is it?” or something like that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  7. Lit3Bolt says:

    Are Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny any more pernicious and evil than other lies that we could joyfully tell our children otherwise? Such as life after death, existence of God, yes you are special out of 7 billion people, yes souls do exist, you can be whatever you want to be, dreams do come true, etc, etc.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 10 Thumb down 10

  8. al-Ameda says:

    They’ll find out soon enough, what’s the harm?

    Consider the fantasy that millions of people believe that God actually cares about what happens on this planet. There’s not much evidence to support THAT. Lets see: 6 million Jews annihilated in the Holocaust, 30 million Russians murdered by Stalin, 3 million Cambodians slaughtered by Pol Pot – I ‘d say that God is somewhat disinterested, or maybe all those innocents just didn’t pray to the right God?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 11 Thumb down 15

  9. Boyd says:

    …the Tooth Fairy left a fiver under their pillow.

    James is obviously part of the indolent rich.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. Gustopher says:

    With the direction that this thread is going, I want to point people towards a youtube video of Robbie Fulks singing his country masterpiece “God Isn’t Real”. A lovely song, and good for Easter. (It actually is a lovely song, if the words were about bunnies or something, it would still be good)

    Also, I would count the Laffer Curve and the Post-Racial Society as far, far worse than the Easter Bunny. Also, Young Bucks Buying T-Bones.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 7

  11. The Florida Masochist says:

    My mother taught me irony. “If I said it once, I said it a million times. Never exaggerate.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. I don’t actually remember ever really believing in Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, etc. I wonder if that’s because I never did, or if it just didn’t leave enough of an impression to recall decades later. Although it’s weird everyone else seems to have vivid memories of when they were told the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Mr. Prosser says:

    I like your idea of telling then they’re as real as Mickey Mouse and Dora and Pooh. I’m going use that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  14. DRS says:

    Your daughters will stop believing in the Tooth Fairy a lot faster if they only get spare change under their pillows rather than fivers. You 1%-ers, sheesh!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  15. Andy says:

    To all the people who think parents should be completely honest with their kids, I have a question for you: What do I say to my then six-year-old daughter who, after overhearing a Lady Gaga song, asks me: “Daddy, what’s a disco stick and how do you ride it?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 3

  16. al-Ameda says:

    @Andy:

    “Daddy, what’s a disco stick and how do you ride it?”

    My sincere condolences Andy. Might I suggest changing the subject to a Kardashian wedding or something like that?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. Peter says:

    Just before Christmas when I was seven years old I figured out that Santa wasn’t real. Not content to keep this to myself, I told all the other kids in my second grade class, most of whom still believed in Santa.

    Although I got in trouble, after all these years I’m still intensely proud for what I did.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  18. ernieyeball says:

    I remember when the big kid down the block told me there was no Santa Claus. I might have been in the first grade (1955?)
    When I went home and asked my parents about it they told me it was true, no Santa and that it was time for me to grow up.
    I still believed in the Easter Bunny though. Apparently my folks wanted to humor themselves.
    They kept up that charade for a few more years!

    As for supernatural beliefs Jefferson Airplane and Grace Slick said it better than I ever could.
    “When the truth is found to be lies
    and all the joy within you dies
    don’t you want somebody to love…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  19. Russell says:

    We’re not fond of the idea of lying to our kids either, so mostly we just reflect the inquiries back to them. For now they still want to believe, but my nearly 6 yo won’t be satisfied with that for much longer, I think.

    cf: here as well as the other posts around Christmas on this parenting blog.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  20. Dazedandconfused says:

    “No honey…there really isn’t a tooth fairy. We’ve been slipping a dollar under the pillow when you are asleep.”

    Long pause…

    “Do I still get it when I lose a tooth?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  21. ernieyeball says:

    Thumbs down for Slick and the Airplane eh.
    I’ll bet you give Gershwin the finger too.

    It ain’t necessarily so
    It ain’t necessarily so
    The t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
    To read in de Bible,
    It ain’t necessarily so.

    Methus’lah lived nine hundred years,
    Methus’lah lived nine hundred years,
    But who calls dat livin’
    When no gal will give in
    To no man what’s nine hundred years ?

    http://www.jango.com/music/George+Gershwin?l=0

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  22. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think it’s meaningless. I tell my kids the truth, or at least what I believe to be the truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. grumpy realist says:

    Reminds me of an essay I had to read in logic class, talking about the truth/falsity of the statement “Santa Claus wears a black suit.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  24. PD Shaw says:

    Per my wife-therapist, our response is “What do you think?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Gustopher says:

    How about “well, either Santa is real, or there’s been a grand conspiracy to trick you and other children that he is real. What do you thinks more likely? Do you really think that we could get everyone to go along with this conspiracy, from the people down the street to the folks in the supermarket to all the people on tv?”

    Or this “he was real last year, but not this year. He died of pancreatic cancer last April, and we’re trying to carry on in his memory as best as we can. Also, eat your vegetables, it wards off pancreatic cancer.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  26. Franklin says:

    Gustopher – both of those are pretty good.

    What I’ve been doing is answering the question with a question, without trying to obviously imply the answer. “Santa Claus visits millions of children in one night, bringing large presents down the chimney, eating cookies, etc. Do *you* think he’s real?”

    I’ll let you all know how it turns out after 15-20 years of this BS.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  27. MaggieMama says:

    When my first born asked me if there really was a Santa, I told her that I chose to believe there was a Santa. If you didn’t believe, why would you receive presents from him? By the time my third child had raised the question, both his sisters where demanding that he NOT bring up the subject with Mommy and keep letting me think that he still believed. They bribed him to keep his mouth shut! So I was the one being “hustled”.

    They have all turned out well adjusted but I’m still waiting for my Porche.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  28. James H says:

    I wish I could dig it up, but I saw an article once that suggested that a number of kids understand that when their parents talk about Santa and the Easter Bunny, it’s Mommy and Daddy playing pretend with them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. J-Dub says:

    Reminds me of a book, “Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road (and Other Lies I Tell My Children)”

    I’m still bitter about my mother lying to me about the existence of god. That said, I probably won’t be lying to my children about Santa or the Easter Bunny other than to inform them that Santa is really the anti-christ. I mean, could it be more obvious? The man is decked out in all Red and goes by the name Satan’s Claws.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  30. @J-Dub:

    I’m still bitter about my mother lying to me about the existence of god.

    Was she lying about it? Or was she just wrong?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  31. James, I think you are on the right track with Mickey Mouse and Dora. Somewhere along the line our four realized that Santa was a myth – or a game – that parents used to let them have fun and know that their parents loved them. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien created myths to teach larger truths. We make a mistake when we tell our children that the myths are literally false instead of explaining how they are metaphors for larger truths.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  32. J-Dub says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Just wrong I suppose, the victim of a lie started thousand of years earlier.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  33. Franklin says:

    But you can’t even prove she’s wrong!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  34. Kitty_T says:

    Our oldest (7) has been told, when asking if Santa is real, that the nature of Santa is one of the great mysteries, but what I can tell him is that Santa comes to kids who believe in him, but doesn’t come to kids who decide not to.

    And Santa definitely doesn’t come to kids who try to make their 4 year old little sister cry by telling her that there is no such thing as Santa.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4

  35. J-Dub says:

    @Franklin: But when the two options are 1) scientific research into the origins of the universe or 2) I dunno, let’s just make some shit up, I’ll take option 1.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  36. J-Dub says:

    I lump Santa and the Easter Bunny in with Joe Camel. They are tools for indoctrinating the minds of children and very effective indeed. All lies, but effective nonetheless.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  37. Rob in CT says:

    I’ve found that other people like to tell my daughter that there is a Santa and an Easter bunny. I don’t pull her aside and tell her it isn’t so. But if she asked me, I’d tell her the truth. And I’ll have no hand in pushing the myths.

    I don’t have a big problem with myth-as-metaphor. But I’m not gonna lie to my little girl.

    The truth is actually better, IMO. We’re giving her gifts. Her grandparents are giving her gifts. Why? Because we enjoy giving her gifts. Because we love her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0