We recently took our 6-year-old daughter skating and they had hired someone to skate around the rink in a giant Olaf costume. My daughter asked a lot of questions and we answered them. When we explained that there was a person inside the costume making it move, she wanted to know all about how they ate and went to the bathroom. She was truly fascinated and we thought it was adorable.
Then last night I got a phone call from a mom I end up spending a lot of time with but wouldn’t necessarily call a friend. She informed me that my daughter had told her kids that the characters you see walking around at skating rinks and theme parks aren’t real. I’m sure she filled them in on all the gory details of performers in suits and so on. This mom was upset that her kids no longer “believed” in Olaf and wanted me to speak to my daughter about keeping that kind of information to herself.
I am pretty firmly in the camp that children should stay kids as long as they can. My own child still believes in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Elf on the Shelf. So, it makes me feel guilty and sad to think that we somehow caused her kids to lose some magic in their lives.
On the other hand, her kids are around the same age as my daughter. I feel like it’s pretty obvious that the characters have humans inside and aren’t real. And isn’t it normal kid-talk to hash these things out?
Do I need to confront this mom? I can’t completely sever ties with her because we’re thrown together a lot and I don’t want to make us all uncomfortable. Should I just ignore it all?
The Olaf Murderer
Dear Olaf Murderer,
The other day, my son repurposed his Batman cape into a Darth Vader cape and was running around the house pretending to be Darth Vader. At bedtime, when I took his cape off, he said “Mommy, who am I now?” He meant, who is Darth Vader without his cape? The way that Spiderman becomes Peter Parker and Superman, Clark Kent. “Now,” I said, “you’re Anakin Skywalker.”
Immediately, my husband came rushing in from the other room to say “no spoilers!!!” He was worried that our son would go to daycare and tell the other kids that Darth Vader was really Anakin Skywalker and basically blow the original trilogy for them. Personally, I think if you wanted to be surprised by the end of The Empire Strikes Back, you had better have watched it pre-1981.
The question of when it’s fair game to release these simple truths to our children is difficult because, as you’ve seen, our kids just can’t keep their adorable little mouths shut. When making the decision that your child is ready to hear the truth about that skating Olaf, you accidentally made the decision for those other children, too. That is a bummer and I can see why their mom feels bad about that, but it isn’t really your fault.
What underlies this, of course, is a more complicated question about when, exactly, we teach our children the uneasy truth about lying. That is, that sometimes, a lot of the time actually, it’s OK to lie.
As you said, you’ve been lying to your kid about the Tooth Fairy and Elf on a Shelf. I bet you’ve also been dispensing a pretty consistent stream of little untruths to keep your daughter confident and happy. I know I have. In my house, these sound like this: “That’s the exact same suit Iron Man wears!” “Oh yes, your painting looks just like a flower.” “The Hulk’s favorite food is vegetables.” “I would love to play Matching Train with you again. And again. And again.”
If I’m being honest about my dishonesty, I do this with grown-ups, too. I might tell a coworker I like her shirt because I’m short on conversation. I often tell waiters my food is “perfect” when in reality it’s “pretty much what I expected for the price, but I’m not super happy about eating it.” And then there are the copious lies of omission. You would never tell your boss that every time he says “for all intensive purposes” in meetings, you update your résumé. You would never tell your husband that your ex’s Twitter feed is sometimes funnier than his.
This kind of lying is the foundation of a civilized society and we all learn how to do it eventually. Right now your daughter is still living in the land of binaries. A thing is true, or it is a lie. To say something true is good. To tell a lie is not. Only…that’s not really how the world works.
Whenever you let her in on this, and whether you do it in conversation or by example, you’ll be adding in a lot of new shades of gray to her black and white world. There will be gradients and nuances. She’ll have to get the hang of it. There will be a lot of practicing, for better and for worse.
But there’s so much more richness in the world when you add in the shading. Being a kid is cool because it’s simple, but being an adult is way better (if you ask me) in part because it’s so complicated. I have more responsibilities, yes, but I also have more choices.
You have some choices, too. Right now you seem to think that you have to either agree with this mom and do what she says, or disagree and confront her, but what if you didn’t do either of those things? What if you stuck to the gray area, somewhere in the middle? What if you told her just what you told me—that questions of truth and feelings, of magic and logistics, of growing up and staying little, are complicated as fuck and you’re still trying to sort them out?
I wonder where a conversation like that one might lead, and what kind of richness might follow. Good luck.
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of “Why We Never Talk About Sugar.” Her work has appeared widely in print and online. You can learn more about her at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on Twitter: @aubreyhirsch