Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scary Santa?

So I recently heard a fellow Mom at the park talking about Santa with her friend. She said she wants to make sure she keeps the “Christmas spirit” alive by working hard to keep her kids believing is Santa for as long as possible. The other Mom qualified this adding, and get this – that she tells her kids that when they stop believing, Santa will stop coming. Ok, this is mean. As a therapist my ears perked up when I heard this because to me I’m just imagining this child pretending not to question things, or worse, learning not to trust his instincts and not to be a critical thinker. I know many of you are thinking that I extrapolate too far. Could be, but it did get me thinking about the way we model truth and respect and critical thinking to our children though many mundane aspects of life including family rituals. In fact family holidays are laden with memory making opportunities. So I think how we conduct these ritualized times is worth a little consideration.

As a parent and a therapist, I think we should nurture our children’s natural curiosity for the truth. As for Santa -my son got frightened when he was 2 1/2 about the idea of a stranger coming into his home while he was asleep. That’s my son. But it totally makes sense. I had always told him that our home was locked up at night and to keep the door locked during the day, etc. So to think it odd and scary that some man comes into your home at night while your parents slept through this intrusion, seems the logical conclusion.Anyway, he really pushed to know how the gifts arrived. His previous Christmas was ushered in with what must have seemed like the mother load of toys under the tree. So of course, I told him the truth. Mommy and Daddy placed the gifts there at night to make Christmas morning a great big fun event for him.  He was fine, and relieved.  What is more, I just like the truth in general.  

I do not like to lie to my child. I do soften the truth to make the world seem more safe than it actually is. For little ones, it is only kind and appropriate to their developmental needs that we be cautious about what material infiltrates their consciousness. We can do this while still maintaining a truthful environment.  Through age 5 at least, a child needs to feel safe and secure in the world and she cannot easily sort out fact from fiction. Small children can live in mortal dread of such events as earthquakes or sea monsters. They do not need to hear the dangers of hurricanes for instance as it becomes just negative fodder for creative and fragile psyches. As an example, he needs to know to look both ways before crossing the street. When he asked why, I was honest: cars are on the road and getting hit my one would hurt badly. He needed to know this and it is useful because he can act on the information. He cannot stop a hurricane, so he does not need to hear about all the implications of it.

I know it’s hard to determine when to be honest and to what extent with any child especially small ones. As a therapist I have worked with a lot of children and have had the honor of being invited into their inner worlds. I will tell you that they get frightened by more than we parents often know that they do. For instance, many kids told me they were angry that their parents lied about Santa. I know this seems unbelievable, but I kid you not. I’m not saying that such fantasy encouraged by parents is going to ruin a kid or cause permanent emotional damage. I am saying, think about your child. Every child is different and what might scare one will excite another. If you pay attention, you will have a sense of what cautions you can take to create a feeling of security as much as is possible for your growing little emotional being.
I grew up where “common knowledge” was that kids need to be toughened up. I often heard say that the earlier they learn to handle fear and face reality the better. As a clinical social worker I know better. The research shows, and I see it all the time, that when children are little, they need a level of protection from the harsh realities of the world. They need the foundation of an internal sense of safety that they will carry within them all their lives. This internal peacefulness, which is developed in the first days to first years, is actually the armor they need to navigate a harsh world as they become teens and adults. So not “toughening up” by having them face things they cannot understand or act upon, but give them coping skills. They need to be taught and have modeled by their caregivers, how to manage anxiety and fear in a creative and positive way. Strategies toward this end help them all their lives, and positively alter the way they react to danger or perceived threats their whole lives.

I am not suggesting that children can or should be put in some sort of bubble or kept isolated. Not at all. But we as parents can make many choices that slow our child’s world down, soften it, and make it feel more safe without resorting to isolation or anxiety driven protective efforts. With a calm peaceful awareness of our child, and mindfulness about the choices of inputs we can control like television, books, social scenarios, etc., we can greatly increase our child’s adaptability.

Back to Santa, I obviously do not use fear tactics of any sort to motivate my son, but he does know that Mom and Dad work hard so he can have wants as well as needs. So he knows that being well behaved means more privileges of all sorts including an extra gift or two under the tree Christmas morning. I did offer that we could fantasize about Santa because it’s fun, like watching a pleasant TV show can be, or how we love to imagine we are part of the story in our books.  We read Santa stories and joke about Santa coming to visit with gifts, but he says Mommy and Daddy are Santa and is just as enchanted at holiday time as any other kid.

1 comment:

  1. nice post. As someone who's studies were in child development I also do all that reading into things too. Thanks