Teaching Kids the Magic of Reality
“Magic is important for kids,” says Dr. Faith Cohen, licensed psychologist. It’s not what you expect to hear from a child clinical psychologist with a specialty in trauma. She sees some dark stuff: sexual abuse, rape, and all kinds of addiction. Yet, she says, “This topic comes up in my practice with parents quite a bit.” I’m interviewing Dr. Cohen about magic – and specifically the question: “Is it okay to lie to your children about Santa Claus?” It isn’t lost on me that she is neither Christian nor the first person most people would ask about magic. Yet she is able to talk about magic as if it is part science and part spirit – the same way I experience it as a parent.
“There is this switch that happens around age seven to nine from magical thinking to concrete thinking and they start switching out of fantasy play...” explains Dr. Cohen. “It’s a loss of innocence.” And it’s during this developmental transition that kids start discovering the hard truth that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist or jolly old characters who bring presents (or worse – might not!) in the night via flying reindeer aren’t real.
Is it you, Mommy?
Dr. Cohen tells a story of when her eldest son was this age and discovered the awful truth about the Tooth Fairy. It was in the morning and she was leaving for a yoga class when he asked, “Mommy is the Tooth Fairy you? You have to tell me!” She asked, “Do you really want to know?” and he assured her that he did. So, she said, “Yes.” “He fell apart,” she says. “It felt like a really bad parenting moment.” She ended up bringing up this incident with her yoga instructor later. Now she uses what he taught her with other parents. He said, “The tooth fairy and Santa Claus, these are just the beginning magic. They are just ways that parents help kids understand the really big magic of the Universe. It’s not that magic doesn’t exist, it’s that it is so big that parents need help to explain it to kids.”
Kids are different and will meet milestones at different ages, but parents can play an integral role in helping their children develop a healthy relationship to magic that is appropriate for their age. She also says that older siblings can help and that many older children enjoy the importance of the responsibility of guarding this information. She recommends language such as: “Your understanding of magic is bigger and more sophisticated and you get the honour of helping hold this surprise with [us] parents.” She also slipped in a reminder that we never want to encourage children to keep secrets, but rather use vocabulary such as “surprises” which is information that is kept just until it’s an appropriate time to let it out.
The tooth fairy and Santa Claus, these are just the beginning magic. They are just ways that parents help kids understand the really big magic of the Universe.
She explained that it took a long time and a lot of discussion to help her son recover his sense of awe and willingness to believe in magic. She gave him examples of the big magic of “déjà vu”, the unconscious, collective conscious and the way things “come together”. She told him stories about how she met his father, how his dad first came to the U.S. and about the way it feels to look into the sky and get a first glimpse of quantum physics. “Slowly, he came to grasp some bit of the bigger magic.”
The stuff of spirit
This developmental shift has to happen, she explains, and she managed to help him through his childish belief in magic to an appreciation of the magic of life. “It was beautiful,” she says. “He would spend hours picking up hermit crabs and putting them into the ocean and was mesmerized by jelly fish and how they move.” “That is the stuff where spirit is derived.” She clarifies that this is “...not religious, but the fabric of connection, the unspeakable essence and dynamic between living beings and creatures.” Why does it matter? “If you didn’t have a sense of wonder, magic, and awe...how can you create? How could the Wright brothers have made the airplane? How would we have made a rocket ship that went to the moon?” She goes on to list art, music, and more. “What is magic?” she says. “It’s something that we don’t understand – that awes us; it’s fuel for the imagination.” Magic, like play, is an important factor in the richness of the intellect but as much as it’s a practical tool for things like advancing science and technology, it does something else that can’t be measured: “Magic,” Dr. Cohen repeats, “connects us with each other...it makes being human more human.”
Create more holiday magic, regardless of religion or belief
Create your own “Santa Claus”
Dr. Cohen shared that in her family they create other myths for their children such as the Tooth Fairy and the Switch Witch who exchanges gifts for candy at Halloween, but in her own, unique (and invited) witchy way. They celebrate Hannukah and the Solstice. “We derive our Spirit through nature, questions of science that can’t be answered and the awe of things unexplained...We take night time walks and fascinate ourselves with the stars and the moon. We say the [Hannukah] prayers. We sing and have beautiful music and light the candles and turn out all the lights and have this little light in the deepest, darkest moments of the year. We make cookies, we bond with the family, we heat our house with the wood burning stove and the kids help make the fire. We stare at the fireplace instead of a TV. We talk about it. We read together. We make tea.” She also says that while she doesn’t celebrate Christmas, she takes her children to admire other people’s Christmas lights. And, while her children don’t go to a Waldorf school, she loves their festivals, and takes them to those celebrations. “There is an essence of beauty and magic that comes in the making of beauty,” she observes.
In my family, we took a slightly different direction and created a Gift Witch. My eldest daughter explains her to friends as “Just like Santa Claus, but she comes whether you are good or not.” We like her because she isn’t attached to a particular day or religion, which works well for our multi-faith family and for times when presents get stuck in customs (as they did last year).
Create a holiday box
Whatever your faith, marking the passing of seasons or celebrating festivals is part of developing a healthy relationship to the passing of time in children. One way to help bring a sense of festivity to a home is to create a holiday box. I talked more about this—and about understanding the historical context of many of the winter celebrations—in the Winter 2014 issue of EcoParent. But, in short, almost all religions and cultures have some sort of celebration of bringing light into darkness that happens around the time of the Winter Solstice.
Thus, whatever your religion, your holiday box might hold lights, candles and holders, or ornaments to catch the light. The key to a holiday box is that there are special and beautiful things that come out just for the holiday season and are packed away afterwards, keeping the items special and from becoming clutter. Our holiday box holds music boxes, two menorahs, Christmas tree ornaments and little crystals and felted items for our nature table. My Aunt Patti, who was a Catholic nun for many years, speaks with special reverence about her holiday box, which includes a nativity. “I place my Baby Jesus in my living room and do something special for Him every day [during Advent] and I place a piece of straw in the manger, so on Christmas morning He has a comfortable crib to sleep in.”
Create moments of delight
The power of magic moments is that, even as adults, we look forward to them year after year and they connect us back to the joys of our childhood and to our children as they grow. Many of the people that I spoke with about how they create magic around the holidays talked about music. They included going to hear choirs, going to church exclusively for the music, playing special albums that they keep in their holiday box, heading out to carol, and inviting family and friends over to sing together.
There are many other ways to create these moments of delight. My friend Noelle is a Christmas baby (get it?) and she was therefore destined to be an expert in creating Christmas magic. She celebrates in a number of ways that I find very inspiring, including taking every Friday off of work between Thanksgiving and Christmas to bake, decorate, and make handmade gifts. She would invite her mom over to “enjoy the creation of the holiday, not the rush.” She also hosts a holiday party every year on the Saturday before Christmas to gather “friends and fill the house with good cheer to last throughout winter.” And there is the tree. “We go to a local tree farm to cut down our own tree and we decorate it with wrapped candies, chocolate covered pretzels, and real candles.” (Use your judgement!)
Interestingly enough, though not one person I spoke with shared a common religion, they all shared a similar reverence for the rituals of winter. Sharing childhood stories, reading favourite books, going to look at Christmas decorations or taking a nightly walk to see the changing of the moon are all ways that other friends said they experienced and shared a little bit of the sacred around the winter holidays. Almost all agreed that it’s these magic moments that are remembered far more often than any gifts.
*Originally published December 21, 2015