faith and trust and pixie dust

I recently took a tour of an outdoor school. Entirely outdoor, in rain, shine, snow, sleet - when there's a forest fire they build a wet towel fort and continue the puppet show.

The teacher pointed out some of the high points of the "classroom," a forest clearing.

There's the giant bird nest made of interwoven evergreen boughs, a piney bowl large enough to hold six or seven kids.

There's the science center: a microscope screwed into a tree stump.

And there's the fairy village, a teepee of sticks and logs, decorated with withered flowers, pinecones, bits of string, feathers. "The kids like to leave presents for the fairies," she said. "And sometimes one of us will leave a little gift for the kids in there, like a bouquet of wildflowers, like it's from the fairies."

Honestly, I wasn't really paying attention. I checked out as soon as I saw that the "classroom" had no walls or fences. Chicken is a runner. I knew this wasn't for us. So I was kind of half-listening about the fairy village, thinking about other things, nodding and smiling.

So do you do tracking bracelets, or...?
But then another mom raised her hand.

"Can you tell me a little more about the fairy village?"

The teacher stammered a bit. I'm sure she was thinking the same thing I was: um, sure? And then I can expand a little more on the "bathroom," and "lunch table."

The mom went on.

"I'm just curious, you know, how you feel about lying to these children."

Again, the teacher's face matched my heart. Okay. It's gonna be one of these now.

"Because I don't lie to my son. And I am not comfortable putting him into a school environment where he's going to be lied to by his teachers. You know, magic and fairies and Santa and things like that aren't real, and I just want to know a little bit more about how you talk to the children about this 'fairy village' so they know that it's not, like, a real thing."

I understand her. I, too, try very, very hard not to lie to my children.

That's why I always tell them when I farted.

But we all lie to them at some point. Even those of us who really take care in the words we choose with our kids, and I include anti-fairy-village-Mom in this group of thoughtful parents.

If we didn't lie to them sometimes, we'd be scaring the shit out of them all the time. Let's examine a few truly honest exchanges that could benefit from just a dash of lie.

Kid: Mommy, what are you doing?
Mom: I'm eating a salad.
Kid: Why?
Mom: Because I hate my thighs. Because I'm scared that your father will leave me for a woman with slender thighs. Because I know with 100% certainty that later tonight I will eat the entire carton of double chocolate gelato lurking under the bag of peas in the freezer, and then I will hate my stupid face and my stupid belly and my big fat thighs. So I must eat this salad, even though I really want fettucine alfredo. Honestly, I'm choking it down.

Or how about

Kid: Mommy, I had a bad dream
Mom: What happened?
Kid: I dreamed that I was lost and you and Daddy were gone.
Mom: Yeah. That could totally happen. In fact, it definitely will. When we die.

Or maybe

Kid: Mommy, Stefan was sad at school today.
Mom: Oh?
Kid: Some kids were saying he's a dork.
Mom: He is a dork.
Kid: Does that matter?
Mom: Yes. It matters a lot. Life is better when people like you. Stefan's got some rough years ahead.

See what I mean? You could have gone for, "because salads are healthy for our bodies," and "oh man, that must have been a scary dream! But here you are, safe in your room," and "poor Stefan. I understand why he was sad. It feels terrible when people call names." All still true answers, just a little less, you know, a bayonet-of-truth. More like spork-of-truth.

I'm all for honesty, but I also respect the critical role that imagination play in a child's growth and understanding of how the world works.

Which brings us back to the fairy village. I have one question to ask that mom.

How do you know that fairies don't exist?

I am dead serious right now.

You don't know.

You can't prove that something doesn't exist. You can only have an opinion on whether or not an undiscovered creature is super good at hiding, which, duh, fairies totally are.

Let me put it to you this way - how sure are you that fairies aren't real? 100%? 110%?

Well, that's exactly how sure a child is that fairies ARE real.

When it comes to faith in the unseen, every person on earth - old, young, educated or not - is equal.

And in this matter, a matter of faith in the existence of magic, there is no winner. You don't get to say, "I'm older. I have more experience in the world, so trust me - fairies are fake." Because your child can come right back and say, "I'm younger. I have an open mind and curious eyes, so trust me - fairies are real." Pretty soon it will turn into the world series of "Nuh Uh" versus "Yuh Huh," and then you're really in trouble.

You have a choice. You can acknowledge the draw, take up your spork-of-truth, and say "well gosh, Adam, I don't know... I've never seen a fairy, but there's a lot of wonder in this world. What do you think?"


"well, Adam, the other children are leaving these items in this pile of sticks because they believe that fairies live here and that the fairies will enjoy these items once everyone has gone home from school. But Adam. Adam? Are you listening to me? These children are fools. There is no such thing as fairies. They're just putting pine cones on sticks. That's it. Do you understand?"

If you decide to "play along," you'll be doing more than just humoring the silly child until he or she grows out of such nonsense - you'll be helping your child to nurture curiosity, open-mindedness, and good-old-fashioned imagination. And more, you'll be teaching your child how to use pretend play to deal with real life.

Children pretend so they can learn how to share with friends. They pretend they're stuck and need to be rescued. They pretend to bake a cake. They pretend to get in a fight, or fall down and rise again. Pretend is their first, best tool for making sense of a big scary world in the safety of their own play rooms.

Take Chicken for example. Whenever I ask him how his day was at school, and he says "good." THAT'S IT. At 2, he's already mastered the parental school-inquiry freeze-out.

But when Chicken sits across the table from his stuffed Sully monster, I perch on the couch a few feet away and ask, in a Sully voice (he sounds kind of like Ted from Bill & Ted)

Mom as Sully: So, how was your day, Buddy?

Sully, I didn't play with my friends today. I just watched them play. I like to be alone sometimes.

Mom as Sully: Oh, man, I understand that. Sometimes I like to play alone too.

Yeah. I don't like to share.

Mom as Sully: Dude, sharing is really really hard! Especially when it's something you really love playing with, like your excavator.

Yeah. And my garbage truck. Tony wanted to play with my garbage truck and I got sad.

Mom as Sully: I bet. Do you think Tony loves trucks like you love trucks?

Yeah. Tony loves trucks and I love trucks.

Mom as Sully: What do you think, tomorrow, do you think you and Tony could each have a truck? Your trucks could race? Or work together to dig a deep, deep hole?

Maybe I'll try tomorrow. Maybe I don't like to play with somebody else. What do you want to do now, Sully? Should I share a snack? I can share my snack, Sully.

What if I told Chicken, "Sully isn't real. He's a ball of cotton stuffed into a blue hair sack, with two googly eyes glued on. He can't talk. He doesn't care about your day. I've been doing a fake voice because I'm so hungry to understand how your brain works. But I don't want to lie to you. So let's just call Sully what he is, which is a blue Chinese-made poofball of deceit, and have an actual conversation about what you did at school today."

It is so, so hard to know when to tell the truth and when to tell the Disney truth, the happiest version of reality. Not all lost dogs get rescued by rosy-cheeked little girls and taken home and given a shiny new collar. And yes, I do wonder if my child is going to have a harder time accepting the incontrovertible truth of roadkill puppies after I've spent days and weeks and months and years doing my damnedest to convince him that the world is a fundamentally good place.

I guess that's the root of my disagreement with this other Mom.

She thinks that it's her job to prepare her son for adult life by making sure he has reasonable expectations, by making sense, by rooting him in the concrete world and finding wonder and joy in what is wondrous and joyous, there, right in front of us.

She wants us to examine the fairy village teepee and learn about the trees that gave these branches, watch the inexplicable miracle of an avocado pit splitting wide open to reveal new life within the dull brown nut.

She's right.
There's a lot of wonder out there. I hear Macchu Picchu is pretty good.

I think it's my job to prepare my kids for adult life by making sure they have a safe place inside their own heads, by rooting them in a place of possibility, where they can they can try on different lives and build a fairy village and populate it with fairies, twittering pink winged fairies or grouchy stout gnome fairies, spunky Peter Pan fairies or scary shadow fairies.

I want my kids to see the avocado pit and feel wonder and joy, and then name the avocado pit "Dado" and play avocado farmer with blocks and rocks and sticks and chalk.

I'm right too.
There's a lot of wonder in there, in those heads.

I can't help but think I'm righter than she is, and I'm sure she thinks she's righter than I. That's how it's supposed to be, right? No matter where you stand on "magic-as-necessary-learning-tool" or "magic-as-intentional-lie," I have to give a shout-out to parents who sweat these thoughtful choices.

So tell me. What do you think about magic?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read on a similar topic...