Is It OK To Lie About Santa And The Tooth Fairy? : Parenting: Difficult Conversations Magical thinking is part of childhood, and when it comes to characters like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, parents often play along with elaborate charades. Here's what to do when kids start aging out of the magic and asking tough questions.
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Is It OK To Lie About Santa And The Tooth Fairy?

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Is It OK To Lie About Santa And The Tooth Fairy?

Is It OK To Lie About Santa And The Tooth Fairy?

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CORY TURNER, HOST:

First, a warning. Do not...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

We repeat.

TURNER: Do not listen to this episode with your kids in the room.

(SOUNDBITE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY")

TURNER: Where would Santa start?

ROWAN: Somewhere north.

AYMAN: Northern, up in Russia or Europe.

TURNER: Oh, yeah.

ROWAN: A little bit more in the North Pole.

KAMENETZ: Hey, Corey.

TURNER: Hey, Anya.

KAMENETZ: Do you ever lie to your kids?

TURNER: Yeah. We're going to go there, huh?

KAMENETZ: Mm-hm.

TURNER: All right. So my story starts on Christmas Eve. And my wife and I are sitting on our bed with our two sons, who were 8 and 5 at the time, and we're doing what lots of families do on Christmas Eve. We're watching a little cartoon Santa in his sleigh on NORAD's online Santa Tracker.

ROWAN: He's pretty close to us.

RACHEL TAYLOR: All the way - yeah, we're right here.

TURNER: What?

ROWAN: He's going super fast.

KAMENETZ: Aww.

TURNER: Yeah. That's my 5-year-old, Rowan (ph), who is all in on Santa. Earlier that evening, he set out cookies. He also put out a big bowl of water for the reindeer.

ROWAN: Sometimes I put smushed-up strawberries in it.

TURNER: He even insisted that we call the folks at NORAD.

KAMENETZ: I didn't know you could do that.

TURNER: I didn't know you could do that either.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Tracks Santa Operations Center. All of our Santa Trackers are currently online with other callers.

TURNER: So after we called the Santa Tracker, my 5-year-old, Rowan, asked this.

ROWAN: Was that an elf, Mommy?

TAYLOR: I don't know. What do you think?

ROWAN: I think it was an elf.

TURNER: It sounded like an elf.

AYMAN: But you don't know what an elf sounds like.

KAMENETZ: Oh (laughter).

TURNER: (Laughter) Yeah. That is my 8-year-old, Ayman (ph). And as you can tell, he is dangerously close to outgrowing the magic of Christmas. The first warning I got came a couple days earlier. He and I were just stretched out on the floor after dinner. And out of nowhere, he drops the biggest truth bomb on me (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Uh-oh. What happened?

TURNER: He says, oh, Dad, you know what I love about you? I said, no, what? You never lie to me.

KAMENETZ: Aw, sticking in the knife.

TURNER: And then I - and for a moment, I was like, wait, where is this going? And then he says, you never lie to me, except once a year around Christmas.

KAMENETZ: Dun-duh (ph).

TURNER: Yeah. And it was like that thing that people do in the movies when their whole world is just turned upside down, and they stare up at the sky. And they go, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: I'm Cory Turner, an education reporter with NPR and, more importantly, the father of two boys.

KAMENETZ: And I'm Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter with NPR and the 24/7 mom of two girls. And you're listening to LIFE KIT for parents with our friends from Sesame Workshop. And this episode...

TURNER: ...The question is, when it comes to Santa Claus...

KAMENETZ: ...Or the Easter Bunny...

TURNER: ...Or the tooth fairy...

KAMENETZ: ...Is it bad to lie to our kids to keep the magic alive?

TURNER: So we're going to give you four strategies for how to handle that awkward moment when our kids start doubting the world of magic.

KAMENETZ: Luckily, we'll be getting a lot of help from our partner, Sesame Workshop, because every word that comes out of a Muppet's mouth on Sesame Street...

TURNER: ...Every book about Elmo, Bert or Big Bird...

KAMENETZ: ...It's all got to pass muster with Sesame's in-house child development experts. And we're going to meet one of them when we come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Hey, LIFE KIT listeners. We have a favor to ask.

TURNER: Since LIFE KIT is still pretty new, we're especially interested in hearing from you...

KAMENETZ: ...So we can make our future episodes even more useful.

TURNER: Please take a short anonymous survey at npr.org/lifekitsurvey, all one word.

KAMENETZ: It'll take less than 10 minutes, and you'll be doing us a huge favor by telling us what you think.

TURNER: That's npr.org/lifekitsurvey.

KAMENETZ: And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: So Anya, you and I have been (laughter) talking a lot about this. Santa is not the problem in your house.

KAMENETZ: Right. So we're a Jewish family. And so this is Lulu, my older daughter. She was 6 at the time.

LULU: Oh, come on. He is definitely not real.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So we just have to make sure that she doesn't debunk her other fellow first-graders (laughter).

TURNER: (Laughter) Thanks.

KAMENETZ: But the truth is - so I was feeling actually pretty smug about your situation for a while, but we do have kind of a situation with the tooth fairy.

TURNER: The tooth fairy.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, I know. The tooth fairy, such a minor character, right?

LULU: So you put it under your pillow or in a tooth pillow. And during the night, when you're sleeping, the tooth fairy comes. And she might also leave you a note if you leave her a note.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: I mean - and we could have so easily just have left it there. This is why I'm kind of like - I'm so torn up about this because it really kind of got out of control, Cory. Like, it started with the standard thing. I wasn't going to deny my kid a quarter because, hey, kid, there's no tooth fairy. That just seemed like a miserly thing to do, you know? So we started with the money under the pillow.

But then she started writing notes to the tooth fairy. She was really interested in talking to the tooth fairy. She had questions for her about magic. She had wishes. She wanted wings that could fly. She wanted a unicorn. Wishes - right? - which I cannot fulfill.

TURNER: You were totally on the hook.

KAMENETZ: Well, the claims are escalating. And then, when I can't make good on those claims - or we can't, Mom and Dad - then she's doubting. She's like, well, is the tooth fairy really real or not? And that is where I felt the need to kind of double down. Here's what I did.

How do you know about the tooth fairy?

LULU: Well, I actually talked to her on the phone.

SHELLY: (As Tooth Fairy) Yes, this is the tooth fairy. Is this Lulu?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHELLY: (As Tooth Fairy) I take the teeth, and I put them somewhere very special because each tooth comes from a very special little girl.

LULU: I know, it's crazy. But, like, it just seems she's really real.

KAMENETZ: So tell me what happened? Why did you talk to her on the phone? How did it happen?

LULU: Well, my mom got me, like, her phone number for some reason. I don't know how she got it at all. But then, she, like, thought there might be, like, available at some times. So I talked to her in the same night.

TURNER: (Laughter) Wait - wait...

KAMENETZ: I know. I know (laughter).

TURNER: This, like, record scratch - reew (ph). You - she - OK, so the tooth fairy called your house.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. So here she is on my phone. I actually changed the contact name to tooth fairy, as you can see.

TURNER: (Laughter) There is actually an entry in your phone for the tooth fairy.

KAMENETZ: Yes. It's surprising how convincing that is when you change the contact name.

TURNER: Right? That's impressive. So who is the tooth fairy?

KAMENETZ: So her name is Shelly (ph). She's a really old friend of ours, and she works with kids. And I actually wanted to call her up because there's something on my mind about our conversation. I wanted to know how she felt about being kind of roped into this deception.

SHELLY: You know, I considered whether or not it was an ethical thing to pretend to be an imaginary creature. But I decided that that was up to (laughter) her parents. And if they'd asked me to do it, then I - who am I to deny some child their ability to speak with someone that's really important to their tooth, you know, falling out (laughter)?

KAMENETZ: So Cory, we're both kind of in it, in over our heads.

TURNER: Oh, we are so in it.

KAMENETZ: The con has gotten really long.

TURNER: (Laughter) And we have smart kids who are on to us both.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So luckily, this is the part of the show where we turn to our friends at Sesame Workshop for help.

TURNER: Luckily (laughter) because Sesame's in-house child development experts are the ones who make sure everything the Muppets say and do is backed by research to be the most helpful for kids.

KAMENETZ: Folks like Rosemarie Truglio. Hi, Rosemarie.

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: Hi, I'm Dr. Rosemarie Truglio. I am a developmental psychologist.

TURNER: Not only, that she's senior vice president of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And we sat down with Rosemarie to talk about these lies we tell our kids to keep the magic of Santa alive or the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny.

TURNER: Or whatever it is in your family. And we're going to run through four big takeaways from our chat with her. And that gives me the perfect opportunity to do what I've been waiting my entire professional career to do.

KAMENETZ: Oh, no.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: Ah, you're going to go there, huh?

TURNER: (Imitating Count von Count) Four big takeaways, ah, ah, ah, ah. That was pretty good, right?

KAMENETZ: That was pretty good. So our first takeaway here about the lies we tell our kids is...

TRUGLIO: You're not lying. You're engaging in their world of make-believe.

KAMENETZ: So Rosemarie explained that characters like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they're actually an important way for us as grownups to bond with our kids.

TURNER: Yeah, by letting us enter into their world.

TRUGLIO: And if you think developmentally, it's during those early years, you know, up to age 7 that their world is filled with magic and imagination. You know, how many of us have had imaginary friends? You know, I know I did.

TURNER: What was your friend's name?

TRUGLIO: I had two, Jeff (ph) and Susan (ph).

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

TURNER: (Laughter) But it's not just imaginary friends we're talking about, obviously. Rosemarie says, to kids this age...

TRUGLIO: Everything is real. So even when you think about our characters - Elmo, and Abby, and Snuffleupagus and Big Bird - those characters are real to children. They live outside of the TV box.

KAMENETZ: So Rosemarie says it's healthy to engage with kids in this world of make-believe. And Rosemarie told me that I'm off the hook.

TURNER: Hurray.

TRUGLIO: So you had to go one up to keep her in this magical time. And I'm - there - I'm fairly secure and certain that she's going to forgive you.

KAMENETZ: No lie, this was a huge relief for me for me, Cory.

TURNER: (Laughter) I know how much it was bothering you.

KAMENETZ: So the takeaway is we're not really lying or necessarily screwing them up in some way by keeping the make-believe going.

TURNER: OK. Deep sigh of relief. But now what do we do when they start asking questions?

KAMENETZ: That's takeaway number two.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRUGLIO: Truly listen to your children's questions.

TURNER: This one is hard too, though. Rosemarie says when your kids ask about Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny, they may not actually be asking what you think they're asking.

KAMENETZ: So beware, she says. You may be about to give them too much information, an answer they don't want and they're not ready for.

TRUGLIO: Pause before you respond and make sure you're really answering the question with the just right amount of information that they can handle at the moment.

TURNER: Rosemarie had this very thing happen with her son, Lucas. They're a Catholic family. And he attended a predominantly Jewish school growing up. When he was around 8, one day a bunch of his classmates told him, come on. Santa's not real. So Lucas came home, and he asked his mom, is Santa real?

KAMENETZ: Instead of Rosemarie giving a yes or no answer, she started with a simple question back to him - why are you asking? And then out came the story about his classmates.

TRUGLIO: I said, well, Lucas, you know, they're Jewish. And we're Catholic. And so do you think that has something to do with it because they don't celebrate Christmas? He's like, oh, yeah. You're right. That's all he needed at that moment. He wasn't - he didn't want to give up on the magic of Santa.

TURNER: The next year, it wasn't just Lucas' classmates doubting Santa. It was Lucas' 9-year-old brain. At this point, Rosemarie says he was leaving the magical thinking phase of childhood.

KAMENETZ: Right. So that year, Lucas again asked his mom about Santa, but with a twist this time.

TRUGLIO: Mom, do you believe in Santa? Now, that's when you got to pause (laughter).

TURNER: Wait. Yeah. (Making drumming sound) All right, Rosemarie. What is your answer?

TRUGLIO: So my answer was, do you believe, Lucas?

TURNER: Oh, you're so Socratic.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, sounds like a true psychologist.

TURNER: (Laughter).

TRUGLIO: And he said, yes, I do. And he said, so do you? And then I did this. I touched my heart because Santa is in the heart. It's not - Santa's not in my head. Right? I know he's not real. So I touched my heart. And I said, I do believe because I wasn't lying. I believe in the giving of Christmas.

TURNER: In the spirit of Christmas, Rosemarie says. And with that answer, Santa lived to see another Christmas with Lucas.

KAMENETZ: And that brings us to our third takeaway. When it's all over, come clean.

TURNER: But be prepared for big feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So before Rosemarie came to chat with us, she actually asked Lucas, who's a teenager now, how he felt the year he finally stopped believing in Santa.

TURNER: He was old enough at 10 to know how unrealistic the idea was. Plus, he had older cousins who would laugh at the mention of Santa.

KAMENETZ: Rosemarie says, that year, Lucas didn't ask her anything at all. He simply told her, Santa isn't real, and you and Daddy get the presents.

TURNER: So at this point, Rosemarie says the responsible thing to do is to just tell the truth, which she did. But she says Lucas still remembers how hard it was to hear.

TRUGLIO: He says, Mom, don't you remember? I cried.

ANYA KAMENETZ AND CORY TURNER: Aww.

TRUGLIO: And - I know. And I...

KAMENETZ: At 10, he cried?

TRUGLIO: He cried. He's like, well, because - and I'm glad it came from him - the magic. He cried. He knew Santa didn't exist. But he was holding on to the magic.

TURNER: Which brings us to our fourth and final takeaway, an action item for all you parents of little lapsed believers.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, takeaway number four.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Find a way to keep the magic alive.

TURNER: Rosemarie says after her son Lucas outgrew Santa, he made a request.

KAMENETZ: One she's honored every year since.

TRUGLIO: Still to this day, he'll say, you know, I know I have to make a list. But can you surprise me? Surprise me with something that's not on the list. And it's about - that surprise reminds him of that special time, the magic of Christmas morning.

KAMENETZ: And that kind of magic can be a connection across generations, from me to Lulu, and maybe one day from Lulu to her kids.

TRUGLIO: Trust me. When she becomes a mom, if she becomes a mom one day, she's probably going to do the same kind of thing. She's going to want to bring that same magic and love and caring to her children.

KAMENETZ: In other words, let our kids be the keepers of the magic with us.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, I can imagine Ayman (ph), like Lucas, taking the end of Santa pretty hard. But I can also imagine him really getting into the idea of being Santa himself with me and his mom to surprise either his little brother or maybe even a neighbor down the street.

KAMENETZ: And that reminds me of this other note from Rosemarie. She says keeping the magic alive, however you choose to do it, it's not just good for kids. It's good for everybody.

TURNER: Yeah. We all need a little magic.

TRUGLIO: Listen. I've been working at Sesame for a long time now. But when I go to the set, and Elmo talks to me, I talk to Elmo. He is real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: All right. It's time to recap.

KAMENETZ: We have four takeaways.

TURNER: Takeaway number one, whether it's Santa or the tooth fairy or an invisible friend named Jeff (ph), engaging kids in a world of make-believe isn't just OK. It's healthy.

KAMENETZ: Right. And takeaway number two, when you think a child may be outgrowing the magic, when they start asking questions, listen carefully. Don't offer answers they may not be looking for.

TURNER: Takeaway number three, when it's over, it's OK. Come clean, and be prepared for some big feelings.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway number four, find a way to keep the magic alive even when you're a grownup.

TRUGLIO: How did you feel when you were a child? And it is that warm spot in your heart that we remember and we want to convey to our children.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Special thanks to Rosemarie Truglio, Lizzy Fishman and all our friends at Sesame Workshop.

TURNER: Make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. But also make sure to check out the next episode in this guide. We'll explore how to talk about race and racism with young kids.

KAMENETZ: And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more podcasts coming every month on all sorts of topics.

TURNER: If you've got a parenting challenge you'd like us to explore, or if you've got a tip or want to suggest a topic, we want to hear it. Email us at lifekit@npr.org.

KAMENETZ: As always, here's an otherwise totally unrelated life tip. This one comes from LIFE KIT listener Dena Gurgis (ph).

DENA GURGIS: If you put a wooden spoon across the top of a boiling pot of water, it doesn't boil over. I don't know why, but science.

TURNER: This episode was edited by Steve Drummond and produced by Lauren Migaki, Sylvie Douglis, Alissa Escarce and Chloee Weiner. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Our digital editor is Carol Ritchie.

KAMENETZ: Our music is by Nick DePrey and Brian Gearhart (ph). Our project manager is Mathilde Piard. Neal Carruth is our general manager of podcasts. And the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

TURNER: I'm Cory Turner.

KAMENETZ: And I'm Anya Kamenetz. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Hey there. Just another reminder to please take that survey we mentioned at the beginning of the episode. It's short, I promise. And it will really help us make LIFE KIT even better. It's at npr.org/lifekitsurvey, all one word. That's npr.org/lifekitsurvey. And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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