Let’s talk for a moment about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Not every family sets up a belief in either of these characters. But, many do. So when is the right time to dis-abuse your children of the fiction you have created for them?
Do both Santa and the tooth fairy exist for the same length of time? Once the tooth fairy’s cover is blown, does Santa automatically disappear? Do they both fall under the catch-all heading of “pretend visitors that make childhood better?” Or are they distinct entities from each other?
A common way people decide to let their kids in on the secret is when a child calls their parent on it. My 8 year old recently just looked me in the face and said, “Mom, you’re the tooth fairy, right?” No need for me to guess in that situation. I just smiled and handed over the money that was hidden behind my back. My next sentence, of course, was, “but you cannot tell any other children!” I don’t know what is going on in other families and I do not want to be the one responsible for the end of this particular innocence.
But, what if my kids never guessed? Or, upon guessing, decided it was too horrible to think of a Santa-free world, so never mentioned their concerns to me? Would I let it just continue? Would my teenager be opening gifts from Santa every year? If an adult child needs his tooth pulled, would he expect a quarter under his pillow the next morning? Which would be more upsetting to a 21 year old? Learning that there is no tooth fairy? Or realizing that his parents had lied to him throughout his teenage years?
This is pretty much the conversation I was having with my client last week. She caught her husband cheating on her in 2008, but decided that her son would be devastated by a divorce; so they just stayed “married.” The husband had various affairs in different states while spending down the family nest egg, thinking that he was getting away with it. The wife took a job to help compensate for the missing money, and hoped things would eventually return to normal.
5 years later, they are embroiled in a hideous divorce. Both parties are angry and bitter that they wasted so much of their lives in a sham marriage. There is no money left in savings; and the wife is living in assisted housing because the husband refuses to help pay her bills. (We are waiting for the judge’s order on that one.)
But the angriest person in the whole picture is their 21 year old son. He has confronted each of his parents about the fact that although it was their choice to stay in a loveless marriage, by lying to him they never gave him the choice of whether he wanted to live inside that particular set of lies with them. He keeps looking back at uncomfortable holiday meals, angry non-celebrations of birthdays and milestones, and feeling as if there was a script that they both saw and he did not. The script of their deceits and anger, which would explain the parts of the picture he did see.
He told his mom that it is as if she let him believe in Santa until he was 20 years old. What might have begun as a harmless story made to help the big scary world feel a little friendlier, devolved into a pathological behavior in which what was obvious and sensible was hidden behind fantasy and fiction. He is furious at them for tricking him. But I suspect he is angrier not only for the fact that the lies worked, I think he must have suspected all along that something was foul in their household, and every time they hid the truth it was as if they expected him to act stupider than he really is. They were asking their son to dumb-down his own emotional intelligence just when it was their job to help him develop it.
The divorce will eventually conclude, and the parents will be able to begin their own pathways to healthy sane relationships. The son will also eventually learn to trust his own feelings and forgive his parents for trying to protect him. But all of them will likely always wonder when would have been the right time to admit to their child, and themselves, that the marriage was over.
WHAT WE LOVE: No matter how long it may take to come out, once it is acknowledged, the truth is powerful and liberating.