Sunday, 3 July 2011

I Am Not The Eggman Or The Walrus But I Am The Tooth Fairy, The Easter Bunny And Father Christmas

The nine-year old boy who lives in my house has been losing his milk teeth intermittently for the past four years.  His mother introduced the tooth fairy immediately when this began to happen.  Unfortunately, it is me who not only funds the tooth fairy's payments but also is behind her activities, creeping around at night collecting teeth from shoes or the paws of soft toys, responding in tiny handwriting to written requests, leaving the money and making sure the tooth is well flushed away down the toilet.  These rules have been set by the child's mother and looking back it seems ironic that she has set the rules but it is me who has to fit with them. Fortunately the going rate she has set for each tooth is not overly high, even for an unemployed man, £2 per tooth.  There have been some gripes from the child that this is below the going rate which at his school is £5 or £10 per tooth, making something like £140-£280 for a whole mouth of teeth, if my knowledge of child dentistry is correct.

Some other rules have come from other sources.  The most notable one was either Horrid Henry or Charlie and Lola, the television series featuring young child characters.  In one or more stories, a child lost the tooth that they were putting out for the tooth fairy but still received the money all the same, because, apparently the tooth fairy can see inside children's mouths and note when a tooth is missing.  The nine-year old who distributes all his belongings all over the house, unsurprisingly lost one of his teeth that had come out before he could pass it on to the tooth fairy.  I was apprehensive as a result.  Under what I will term Lola's Law, I had to pay up because the tooth fairy must know it had fallen out (though usually she has to be emailed to be told to come and collect a tooth that has come out), but I feared the tooth would be found leading to the need for more complex fabrications.  Searching for a lost gecko toy, the tooth did reappear fortunately just in front of me, mixed in with some gravel that had been walked in, and I was able to palm it before it was spotted, saying there were stones that I had to chuck out, then making a quick diversion to the toilet to flush away the evidence.

I have other roles, back in April as the Easter Bunny.  The Easter Bunny was again introduced by the child's mother when he was much younger, but as yet has not died.  This child is intelligent enough to ask, if the pharoahs were in Egypt in 3200 BCE and there were stone age people before them and dinosaurs died out 63 million years before humans even appeared how could the world have only been created in 4004 BCE as they tell him at school.  In fact, given that God has not responded to any of his prayers he has rather given up on him and told me the other day he believes people when they die come back as other people or animals, suggesting at 9 he is moving more towards Buddhism or Hinduism rather than Christianity, which leads me to wonder what they are teaching him in RE (Religious Education) and Worship, two lessons he does at his Church of England faith school.  He can discuss black holes and white holes and is familiar with the DNA double helix and yet believes that a rabbit produces chocolate eggs that are available in supermarkets and distributes them around the garden for him to find.  Anyway, so I was again slated with the role of not only buying the eggs, keeping them secret and then staying up to distribute them around the garden (two years running, foxes got to some of them before the child).  As the child gets older I have to stay up later and walk around in fear of being heard or seen. 

Some fiction adds to the feasibility. Having watched 'Hogfather' (2006) in which Death replaces the Hogfather (the equivalent of Father Christmas in Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe), the boy knows that characters such as Death and Father Christmas work in parallel universes with a different flow of time to ours so they can get around the whole world. Condoning this I added that many countries in our world do not celebrate Christmas, some countries in Europe have the gift-giving earlier in December than the 25th traditional in the UK, and given the time zones, it is not Christmas night simultaneously across the whole world.  I was concerned when I first met the boy, that thinking that Father Christmas brought all his gifts, would make him unaware of the money and effort expended by his family in giving him presents.  Thus, in this house, most presents come from named individuals, but Father Christmas tops this up with special gifts. 

Two years ago, enjoying relaxing, I forgot to buy these special gifts and was left to run from newsagent to convenience store trying to buy what I could on Christmas Eve to make up the special package.  Of course, I eat the mince pie and drink the milk (fortunately he does not get brandy in this house, something I dislike) and last year even ate the carrot left for the reindeer, making sure to leave the stub in the garden where the reindeer would have touched down.

Ironically, having some Pagan relatives has added more characters to the mythical cast, though fortunately, as yet, I have not been compelled to dress up as the Green Man and do whatever it is that he does or delivers, but we have attended fires at Winter Solstice to ensure that the Sun comes back.  Fortunately we have never had a case in which the fire has been put out by a typical rainy day in a British December, as I did worry the child may be concerned that we would be condemned to eternal darkness as a result.  He also has avoided being in on the interpretation of the nature of the fire in predicting the year ahead.  Interestingly, though Pratchett's Hogfather is seen as the Father Christmas equivalent, in fact the origins he is portrayed as having sit far closer to the Pagan solstice rituals than anything Christian.

Now, the effort and expense involved in being all these anthromorphic characters is not what concerns me.  It is more that at special times of the year both I and the boy's mother lie to the boy.  We go to great lengths to support the lies.  I have a suspicion that given the boy's intelligence, his knowledge of world history and basic science and a lot of astronomical science, he has already seen through the lies and only plays along because he gets presents as a reward for continuing his side of the pretence.  However, the day will come when he no longer believes and I worry that that day will be soon.  I do worry that I will be caught at one of these activities and so will have to face both the ire of his mother for disrupting the fantasy and from the child disheartened by the revelation that myself and his mother, have clearly been lying.  How then will he be able to trust us when we tell him other things like he needs to clean his teeth, get a decent amount of sleep, do his homework, not bully other children, etc.? 

The alternative seems to be to select a certain date, say when he starts secondary school in September 2013 and tell him then.  However, even then, whilst avoiding the immediate heartbreak of discovery and having a standby that we will still give him gifts at Christmas and Easter (I assume all his teeth will have been replaced by then), the fact of our lies will still be there.

You might suggest I go on discussion boards and see how other parents deal with it.  However, I seem to be surrounded by parents who appear to want to keep their children locked into some idyll.  It does not help that he attends a school that teaches that the world was created in 4004 BCE (and yet ironically often gives toy dinosaurs as rewards to boys) and many of the parents believe that Genesis is the truthful portrayal of how the universe was created.  Of course, there is no date given in the Bible, this date was calculated by Sir Isaac Newton who spent a lot of his career not discovering gravity or laws of motion, but trying to decode the Bible.  In addition, they seek not only not to talk about the various mythical gift givers but also about other things like sex, swearing, alcohol and drugs. 

In the modern world it is a difficult line to tread in not terrifying children about the world out there, but also informing them sufficiently with the information that is necessary to cope with it.  I decided to keep in step with what his school was teaching in its PSHE (Personal, Social & Health Education) which is laid down by the National Curriculum.  However, finding out what they cover in that from the child or the school has proven impossible.  It is a faith school and I know sex is taboo, but they are supposed to get a basic introduction at the age of 8, something his school appears to have neglected.  This is despite the boys discussing openly things being 'sexy' and referring inaccurately to sexual activity.  It is unavoidable when you can see scantily clad women even on Marks & Spencer's posters and almost sexual activity in pop videoes.  In addition, as always, there are elder siblings who begin discussing these things. 

The boy in my house also fell in love with a girl in his class and wrote her cards and things.  Not only is he ill-equipped to deal with sex, but everything else that leads up to it.  Now, I could have sat back and blamed the school for its negligence.  It walks a fine line between OFSTED which seems to inspect it very regularly and the diocese which inspects it too, on very different criteria.  Some parents run a mile from even the mention of the word sex and see it as something that should not be discussed in school coming up with spurious claims that homosexuality is being 'taught' (as in practical instruction) in Scottish schools as a basis for avoiding all sex education. 

Others argue the innocence of the child needs to be protected.  This seems ironic given that these children already have named girl/boyfriends, surely if you combine that with an unwillingness to talk about sex and relationships you are just setting them up for teenage pregnancies with the man walking away.  Once the boy reached 9, I gave him a brief technical talk about 'seed' and 'egg'; 'willies' and 'fannies' but also things like the fact you cannot have 2 girlfriends and sometimes you will love someone who has no interest in you.  This took all the giggling away from talking about girls and things he saw as 'sexy'.  Have I stripped him of his innocence or have I empowered him with accurate rather than distorted information?

Now, given that I have been the source, along with his mother of life information, how is this ever going to be reconciled with the fact that I have also been pedalling a whole range of fantasy characters and going to great lengths to sustain a false belief in them?  How will it impact on his view of God and will he get expelled from his school if he begins to question God's existence?  It seems to me that parents want to have it all ways: to create a fantasy to make the child feel special, to engage them with major annual festivals and overcome fears (such as the loss of teeth).  Yet, in turn, this then seems to ultimately undermine the child's faith in the fact that their parents tell them the truth. 

I think it would have been better from the start to be honest with the child and tell him he gets Easter eggs and Christmas presents because people love him and want him to be part of a happy celebration and that tooth money is to help him forget the discomfort and worry of losing teeth, rather than creating a pantheon of mythical creatures whose role has to be acted out, in this case by me (and, I imagine, predominantly by fathers or pseudo-fathers when they are available).  In many ways I do not think ultimately it 'protects' the innocence of children. 

A staged approach to addressing life's issues rather than cottonwooling children is the way to do that.  In addition, it does not undermine the child's faith in their parents telling the truth just at the time when you are about to tell them things which they need to believe in to keep them healthy, solvent and safe in the years to come.  The parents I have asked about all this have proven worse than useless and I do really worry in their rush to pad their children against the world how ill-equipped they will leave those children when they face up to genuine challenges.  So, are there any practical, pragmatic parents out there who can advise on when it is time to pull off the Easter Bunny disguise and come clean?  I fear that it was a path that was doomed to failure the moment the boy-in-my-house's mother first promised him that Father Christmas was going to bring him a gift and, as a result, we may be still be picking up the pieces of those sustained lies, many years from now.

P.P. 05/09/2011
Suddenly it all fell apart.  Forgetting to pay for one tooth, two nights running, led to the utter collapse of faith in the tooth fairy and then with her both the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas too.  Then came the allegations of lying on our behalf.  Fortunately I was away from home when most of this happened, but the investigation and the accusations from the boy seem to have been quite severe, even down to trying to determine precisely which pen had been used to write responses back to his letters to the tooth fairy.

In many ways, all my fears have come true.  Not only have we come abruptly to an end of what was a delightful phase of his childhood, something which was inevitable as we moved quickly towards him starting secondary school (he goes into Year 5 this week), but the sense that the two people he trusted the most had been going to extensive efforts to deceive him over the space of six years, has clearly cut hard.  I do fear it has damaged his faith in anything we tell him from now onwards.  I know you can never keep a child in their 'cute' phase indefinitely, but now the price for not being honest from the start is that we have damaged our relationship with us just at a time when we need him to believe what we say especially about drink, drugs, sex, violence, etc. is completely true.

I would advise all parents, do not be tempted no matter what grannies and grandads say or aunts and uncles advise, to stay away from creating the false hopes of the tooth fairy, Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and any other anthromorphic creations.  Instead tell the child that they are getting gifts because people love them; they are getting money for their teeth to soothe the discomfort and the worry that losing a tooth can bring to a child.  You can still wrap up everything nicely, you can still have a hunt for the chocolate eggs, just simply do not pretend that some spectral being has dropped them.  Tell the child that you have done it because you love them.  Without seeming too sentimental, this gives them a second gift, because too many children are not aware of how much they are loved, especially in the UK where we do not talk about these things.  To weave fantasy in the place of real love as a motive, will backfire severely just at a time when you need the child to be taking what you say seriously.

Personally I mourn not only the passing of time, the loss of innocence, but also the fact that I have been accomplice to handling the situation so badly with an impact that may echo down the years.  I know lying to children can sometimes not be avoided, but certainly stay away from the sustained lies that these creations bring.  I feel terribly guilty for messing up this boy's life in this way and am glad to be spared the responsibility of having my own children if this is the consequence of my complicity in deception.


=Tamar said...

He has already begun to disbelieve certain things he's been told. Just make sure he knows that tv shows and movies aren't real (I've met two intelligent ten-year-olds who had to be told that). That can lead into the topic of other things that we enjoy that are not real.

Rooksmoor said...

=Tamar, this is interesting because he is certainly aware that movies are not real which makes it hard when they make points that I would like him to learn from, as noted in my previous blog on using Shrek and Harry Potter movies for raising issues around developing relationships.

It is complex when cartoons such as 'Cosmic Quantum Ray' explore serious issues connected to science and even the Pokemon series say a lot about relating to other children. I am not eager for us to return to the gritty youth dramas of the 1970s, but it is not easy for a pseudo-parent to disentangle fact from fantasy.

He is a very nostalgic child and tends to cling to 'cute' things when there are troubles for us, as there have been a lot of in the past year with unemployment, house sale, etc. I think he sees many of these more juvenile things as representing the 'golden age' that we experienced when he was younger, especially when he was at pre-school age. Having to attend school at 4 years old snatched him from that and our fortunes declined rapidly at that time too.

Consequently he may be holding on to things like the tooth fairy more because of the difficulties in our life as they remind him of 'better' times. Having seen that I have only £32 in my bank account today, 20 days before pay day, suggests the troubled times are not over.