Fact versus fiction: how best to tell our children the truth
Dinosaurs were once real, but they don't exist anymore. The Smurfs only appear at the cinema. The tooth fairy leaves real money under your pillow, but is she real? Monsters definitely don't live under your bed, and Santa Claus always comes down the chimney, even if we don't have one. Henna trees can't really talk and the mysterious creatures from Emirati folklore and children's tales are imaginary, even if they revolve around tales of real-life princes and princesses. Jinns are real in Islam and feature heavily in fairy tales, but how not to scare a child with their existence?
The world is a confusing place for small children, particularly as they only learn to distinguish between reality and fantasy between the ages of three and five. Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the University of Texas in the US, found that by the age of four, children learn to use the context in which new information is presented to distinguish between fact and fiction. So, before long, your little one will be figuring out that the tooth fairy isn't who you said she is. Which begs the question: at what age should we tell our children that their beloved magical characters aren't real? Or, should we even claim that they're real in the first place?
Last Christmas I witnessed the most heated debate I'd ever come across on Facebook. It didn't involve politics, religion or money. No; it was Santa Claus who caused the divide. One friend posed the question: "Should I tell Sophie Father Christmas is real?" What followed was a polarised debate between those who wanted their children to enjoy a magical gift-giving time and those who believed that perpetuating the story of Santa was being dishonest with their offspring. "I was devastated when I found out it was my mum, not Santa, who hung the stocking on the end of my bed," admitted one father. Whereas others regretted never having the chance to believe in Santa because older siblings had spoilt it for them.
"I make a point of always being honest with my daughter and now she has turned six I'm feeling increasingly uncomfortable with perpetuating the lie of Santa Claus," admitted Rosie Cuffley, a mother of two.
According to Carmen Benton, a parenting educator and educational consultant at LifeWorks, Dubai, Rosie shouldn't worry. "Sharing the world of fantasy characters with our children is not a lie, but rather a playful way of storytelling and connecting as a family to fun events. Think about the joy and excitement that thoughts of characters such as Santa Claus can induce. You have the power to create a magical world of dreams, wishes and storytelling for your kids and I believe these are part of being a playful parent."
It's a different scenario when children ask directly whether Santa Claus, for example, is real. Most psychologists agree that children need to know they can trust their parents to tell them the truth, even about magical characters. "The majority of children will let go of a fantasy after the age of eight, and most would be happy for the years of the imaginary world they had been able to enjoy," says Benton.
Unfortunately, not all children's fantasies have a happy ending. "My sensitive eight-year-old son asked me recently if the Easter bunny really exists," says Karen Fordham, a mother of one. "He wanted to know if I was the one giving him eggs, which I denied. He told me kids in his class had said the Easter bunny wasn't real. I soon realised that my son might be teased in the future so I told him the truth, to which he responded with tears of disappointment."
When the truth comes out, your child's reaction may leave you feeling like a terrible parent. However, anger and disappointment isn't necessarily a reason to avoid fantasies.
"When my daughter was five years old, she asked me if the tooth fairy was real," says Dr Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist. "When I told her she wasn't, she became very angry at me, not because I had led her to believe that a make-believe character was real, but because she wanted so much for the tooth fairy to be real. My daughter is now 12, and remembers this incident clearly. She told me recently that she thought that I did the right thing, and that she would have been even angrier at me if I had lied in response to her direct question."
The tooth fairy is one thing, but often, serious issues get shrouded in fiction. When small children enquire where babies come from, we tell them they're found under gooseberry bushes or delivered by a stork. Helpful? Unlikely.
"Adam was five when he first asked me about babies being made," says Alex Chamberlain, a mother of three. "He had vaguely asked me before, but he was so young I fobbed him off with an answer about love and magic, which I wasn't very proud of. Next time around I told him the truth in very basic terms and he accepted it as simply as if I had described how to make a cake." Alex had the right approach, according to Benton. "With this kind of question, it is far better to tell children a more honest answer they are able to understand, and ones that share your family morals such as, 'babies come from mummies and daddies who love each other'."
Another area parents commonly fictionalise is sickness and death. We say grandma has gone away for a little while, or she's gone to sleep, but by creating a story around a real event, we can make the problem worse. "We must always give children full credit for being resilient and aware of what is going on around them. In cases of death or illness, it is far better for children to be aware of the truth to help them understand the reactions of all the adults around them. It can be explained to a child in a simple and honest way," says Benton. "Keeping important information from children is not protecting them, but rather allowing them to wonder things that may not be true, such as 'is this my fault?'"
The best thing you can do is to make sure your child has some understanding of sickness or death before it affects their life. "Nobody can avoid grief, only postpone it," explains Dr Stuart Crisp, a consultant paediatrician. "The death of a pet is an excellent opportunity to start talking about death. Buying a goldfish, which is easy to keep and has a short lifespan, is one way of ensuring this occurs while children are relatively young."
Children do not need protection, they need competent guidance and satisfactory answers to their questions. "Be honest and tell them how you feel when you are bereaved. They need to know it is OK to feel sad and to cry," says Crisp. "When telling a child that someone has died, make sure the word 'died' is used. Children do not understand euphemisms. Some children have waited years for a grandparent to return because they had been told he or she had 'passed away'."
As you tip-toe between the worlds of fact and fiction, ensuring your children have a magical childhood but enabling them to grow accustomed to the reality of life, take heart in the fact that no parent gets everything right. And if they say they do, you know it's fiction.
Updated: October 18, 2011 04:00 AM