Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m not yet a parent but hope to be one soon, and this time of year gets me thinking about how I really don’t want to do the whole Santa thing with my kids once I have them. I didn’t really believe in anything but science as a kid. I never thought it would be a big deal to tell my future kids that Santa is not real. However, lately I’ve noticed that when kids don’t believe in Santa, people assume that they have bad parents who are giving their kids bad childhoods devoid of magic. Can you explain what I missed out on by not believing? Because I kind of assumed that childhood is inherently magical, not confined to the figureheads of Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the tooth fairy. I know you’ll probably say, “Let them believe while they’re little.” But I want to know what exactly my kids would be missing if I don’t, in fact, “let them believe.”
—I Just Don’t Get It
I am so glad you asked, because I have kind of been dying to talk about this.
I am really tired of hearing people say, “Let them believe while they’re little.” And I am really, really tired of hearing that the principle of never lying to one’s children is a ludicrous one—both an unachievable goal and a fundamental misunderstanding of parenthood—and that I must be lying when I declare that I never told my own daughter anything that wasn’t (as far as I knew) true. Yes, of course, there were some questions I sidestepped when she was very young (when asked outright if I believed in God “like Daddy does,” I carefully finessed it without a lie) and some I flat-out refused to answer, like when she started asking me some very nosy questions about my love life before I met her father, and I told her firmly that some things just weren’t any of her business. My answer to other questions that I considered her too young to hear the answers to was, “Ask me again in five years, and I promise I’ll tell you” (and she did and I did). But the general principle was don’t tell her any lies, and I stuck to it.
I should point out that this founding principle wasn’t the result of my considering myself morally superior to other parents. It was for my own sake. I have always felt extremely uncomfortable with any untruths, even mild and (so they tell me) harmless ones. I was never even any good at April Fools’ pranks, because I couldn’t bear that brief period when the other person was supposed to believe something outrageous you’d just told them. (I realize there appears to be some irony here, in that I write and publish fiction—i.e., I make things up all the time. But when you write novels and short stories, you know that the people reading your books are aware that you’re making all this stuff up. That’s not a lie; it’s an agreement between willing parties.)
Anyway. Early in my pregnancy, I started wondering what I was supposed to do about Santa and the Easter Bunny and so on. I didn’t grow up with those traditions—largely because I’m Jewish, sure, but also because my father was a lot like me (I mean, I’m a lot like him): He was committed (maybe addicted) to truth-telling and allergic to lying about anything. But my child would be celebrating Christmas. I was looking forward to celebrating it myself, along with every other holiday under the sun, with my Southern Baptist husband. I asked him: What did he want us to tell our child about Santa Claus? He shrugged. I pressed. What had he been told? When did he find out that Santa wasn’t real? Had this been a traumatic revelation? Was he angry when he found out his parents had been lying to him?
He sighed. The sigh was about what he considered my excessive worrying/ruminating/talking about everything that ever popped into my mind. It was also about my foolish assumption that he would remember anything at all about his childhood. “Call my mother,” he said.
Your job, really, is to teach your child to be kind, to think of the feelings of others, to respect their beliefs—whatever they are.
And my dear mother-in-law, wife and daughter of Baptist preachers, Sunday school teacher, gentle soul, laughed and said (insert Southern accent here for full effect), “Oh, we never told the children that Santa was real! We always said that was a fun thing, just a fun thing to make-believe about, one of the nice parts of celebrating Christmas, that’s all. And that worked out just fine.”
So that was exactly what I did, with the blessings of my Christian mother-in-law. And it worked out just fine. As it will for you and your future children.
Parents who want their children to believe that Santa is real should go for it. I don’t judge them for this. It’s a sweet tradition that makes a lot of people happy. But it’s not for everyone. You needn’t feel the tiniest bit guilty if you decide to dispense with it. The bottom line is that raising your children in a way that feels right to you is what matters. As long as you’re not neglectful or cruel, as far as I’m concerned, you have carte blanche.
I can assure you that knowing that her presents came from family and friends caused my kid to miss out on none of the joys or magic of childhood. Not even the joy and magic of Christmas morning, when she would cry (as we all do, to this day), “Look what Santa brought!”
But since we get so many letters about children “ruining” other children’s Christmases by telling them the truth prematurely, let me add that my daughter knew better than to do that—that it’s really not a big deal to tell your child that other families think about Santa Claus (and plenty of other subjects) differently than yours does. I asked her not to spill the beans and spoil their fun, to simply enjoy the make-believe with them without pointing out that it was make-believe. In any case, of course, one by one, eventually every child learns the truth; the kindest of their friends don’t force them to get there until they’re ready on their own. So your job, really, is to teach your child to be kind, to think of the feelings of others, to respect their beliefs—whatever they are. This will be useful well beyond Christmas.
Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists. Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips. Nicole Cliffe presents classic gifts for children of all ages. Teacher Carrie Bauer recommends educational gifts your kids will actually enjoy.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My daughter is 12 years old and going through a phase where she likes to (sorry, this is gross) pick her scabs. She now has open sores all over her face and some on her arms and legs. Obviously, my wife and I know that this is extremely unhealthy and unhygienic. We have told her that she might get an infection or end up with permanent scars, but she swears she can’t help herself. She actually feels intense shame about this habit and wears hats to cover her forehead, concealer on her face, and long jackets and sweaters, even when it’s hot out, to conceal her arms. She is otherwise a pretty normal girl for her age. She has friends she hangs out with, talks about crushes on boys, etc. We’ve just been hoping that this was a phase that would pass, but now it’s been over six months. She is still my beautiful baby, even with all the scabs, and I tell her that daily. I’m just afraid that she will get some kind of staph infection … or that her shame and self-loathing will send her down a bad road. What can I do?
—Concerned and Confused Dad
This does not sound like a phase. It sounds to me like an anxiety disorder, in particular one called dermatillomania or excoriation disorder, in which anxiety is relieved by picking at one’s own skin. It is treated by treating the anxiety.
Your daughter may not even be aware of how anxious she is; she may only be aware of feeling something overpowering, and finding a temporary easing of that awful feeling when she picks at herself. Telling her to stop doing it will have no effect. She wants to stop. She would if she could.
I think it’s probably just as well that your loving, entirely well-intentioned efforts to make her stop have failed, because if they had somehow worked, her anxiety might have been driven even further underground. I know it’s hard to hear this, but your child needs to see a psychotherapist. Now. That she is functioning well in some areas of her life does not mean that she is altogether healthy. In the meantime, you can try to help her too. This article on what to do (and not do) when your child is experiencing anxiety may be useful even as you seek professional help for her.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I are thrilled to be expecting our first child, a boy, in February. As a dedicated reader of this column, I’ve seen a lot of people come to you with naming questions, and usually these questions come from people who are EXTREMELY PASSIONATE about the name they’ve chosen for their unborn kid. We have the opposite problem. No names appeal to us. There are some we strongly dislike, but most names make us shrug and say, “That could be fine.” Honoring family members by naming our child after them isn’t very helpful, as all of our beloved male relatives have extremely common/generic names, like John or James. Got any suggestions for us? We’ve agreed to name our child whatever you decide. (Just kidding! Though if you suggest something we like, who knows?) How do people make this choice?
—Name Check, Please
Just so you know, there is at least one more variation on this theme, beyond the two-parents-each-extremely-passionate-about-a-name scenario, the one-parent-passionate-about-a-name-the-other-detests scenario, and your meh-about-pretty-much-every-name-you-can-think-of. There was my husband and me. I made a list of something like 150 names I liked a lot, with stars next to the ones I liked more than a lot and two stars next to the ones I liked even more than that—and, yes indeed, three stars next to my very favorite of my favorites—and handed the list to my husband, who systematically started crossing names off. In the end there was one name left—the only one he could find no reason to object to.
So, no, I don’t have a name for your son (I might have 75 names for him if I really sat down to think about it). But I can tell you how I got started on my megalist of names for my daughter. I thought about the sounds I like best, and I thought about what I wanted the name to mean. I thought about traits—Hope, Faith, Felicity. I thought about women in history who were important to me and/or to my husband (if he hadn’t decided to eliminate all names that ended with an “a”—he didn’t want our daughter to have too girlish-sounding, “too fussy,” a name—she might have been Sofonisba, after Sofonisba Anguissola, a 16th century Italian Renaissance painter). I thought about names from other languages—which my husband rejected either because he didn’t think we’d earned them (what we would now call cultural appropriation) or because he thought it would take her forever to learn to spell her own name if it was, say, Nadezhda (the Russian word for hope), and never mind that my grandfather was from Russia.
But here’s the thing. I thought this was fun. I enjoyed every minute of dreaming up names. I even enjoyed the conversations with my husband about why so many of them were off the table. If you and your husband aren’t into it—at least not right now—why not give it a rest? Maybe a great name will occur to one of you if you stop consciously thinking about it. (I suppose this is a good time to reveal that my own parents didn’t have a name for me when I was born. I don’t know how they settled on the one they finally gave me, but I do know I left the hospital without a name—that the nurses referred to me as “Honey Herman.”) Maybe you’ll have a revelation while you’re in labor—or maybe you won’t know until you see the baby, and it will come to you at once: Oh, my God, he looks exactly like a Maximilian. Or an Alexander or a Jedidiah or a Cash or a Miles. Let it be for now. Pick something else to worry about (there are so many options!).
Dear Care and Feeding,
As the father of a newborn daughter, I’m loving all the opportunities to lullaby her to sleep. However, I didn’t see the point in learning a whole new repertoire when I have a collection of Gen X’s greatest tunes already primed to be delivered—it’s soothing and a music education at the same time! And she’s a fan. In fact, the go-to lullaby that always sends her to the land of Nod is Offspring’s “Self Esteem” (“Enter Sandman” by Metallica has, ironically, been less fruitful). But I begin to wonder: Right now the lyrics are as nonsensical to her as an interspecies romance between and an owl and a pussycat, but that won’t always be the case. At what point do I need to ditch “I wonder why she sleeps with friends” in favor of “Daddy’s gonna buy you a mockingbird”?
—Crooning and Grooving in Virginia
As soon as she lets you know. Me, I sang Laura Nyro’s “Buy and Sell,” which says, among other things, “death tolls like a vesper bell.” I sang it to my baby daughter until the night she looked up at me and said, “Mama, what’s cocaine?” In the meantime, enjoy sharing the songs of your youth as I did (or keep it up and resign yourself to explaining things you don’t necessarily want to explain to a 2-year-old).
More Advice From Slate
A few months ago, my precocious 11-year-old daughter and I were downtown when she pointed out two teachers from her school walking hand in hand. She said that these two had always seemed particularly close but she hadn’t realized that they were dating. Fast forward to this school year, and it turns out the male teacher is married (to someone else), and it seems he and this other teacher are having an affair. What should I do?