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The Case for Santa and Magical Thinking

Photograph by Twenty20

I had an invisible friend when I was a child. Scratch that. I had a whole invisible world. There was a school with multiple teachers, a principal, a really cool gym for PE class and tons of students. They had names that weren't actually names, all drawn from my rich internal world. There was a town hall, a skating rink and a grocery store (you know, the essentials).

It didn't stop there.

I had stuffed animals that talked and was 100 percent convinced that I saw the tooth fairy, sitting on my dresser in the dark of night when I was in first grade. I remember it clearly. I was equal parts awestruck and petrified, and I never told a soul.

As time passed I decided that it must have been a dream.

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I was an introvert before it was hip to be an introvert. The third of four children and the one described as "quiet," I enjoyed downtime in my bedroom with my imaginative world. I could play for hours, getting lost in magical worlds or solving problems in my invisible school.

As it turned out, my fantasy world was a good thing. Kids who engage in fantasy or imaginative play actually learn about reality. Through this kind of magical thinking, kids work through their doubts and questions about fantasy vs. reality. It also helps them cope with things like stress and anxiety. What is often described as "escaping reality" is actually a great way for kids to work through their emotions and solve difficult problems.

If we can allow adults their own beliefs, even if we don't share them, shouldn't we do the same for kids?

Case in point: Being an introvert in the '80s was no easy task. Parents and teachers didn't necessarily understand that "quiet ones" don't need a huge group of friends to thrive. They didn't get that a lack of classroom participation actually meant waiting for the right moment to share. My invisible school helped me find my voice and figure out where I fit in.

Parents often wonder about things like the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny and, of course, Santa. Do we perpetuate a lie when we buy into these magical beings? Do we lack honesty and set our kids up for disappointment?

I would never tell a parent what to do in this case. Every family has their own beliefs. Even within families, beliefs can vary. But there are clear benefits to encouraging fantasy and imagination:

  • Increased problem solving skills
  • Creative thinking
  • Social skills development
  • Learn about themselves and the world around them
  • Work through fears, worries and stress
  • Acquire emotional regulation skills
  • Work though transitions and scary life events

Sometimes adults overthink things. Adults also tend to forget that even older people believe in things that might not necessarily exist.

Believing in guardian angels helped me cope with the early loss of my father. I can't say for sure what happens to your soul after you die, but the thought that my father might be up there watching out for me comforts me in times of stress.

Some people believe in heaven. Some people believe they will see their departed loved ones again one day. If we can allow adults their own beliefs, even if we don't share them, shouldn't we do the same for kids?

My daughter believes in fairies. She believes there are forces of nature beyond what we can see. Sometimes that belief seems to be fading, but other times it comes back stronger than before. She questions the possibility and spends time thinking about whether or not another world (a magical one) could, in fact, exist.

The truth is that fantasy and imagination are vital components of child development.

This belief in small flying creatures who bring sunshine and happiness into the world makes her feel safe when her dad travels for months at a time. It keeps her grounded in times of stress. It helps her cope. Who am I to take that away from her? Who am I to destroy something that helps her work through her fears and emotions? Her fairies, like my invisible school, will fade away when she no longer needs them. But for right now, her beliefs are for her to hold close.

The truth is that fantasy and imagination are vital components of child development. Let your children have their beliefs. Let them work through their questions in their own time. Childhood is short, but it's also complicated. Sometimes a little magical thinking goes a long way toward working though the ups and downs of childhood.

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As for the guy in the red suit? I, for one, still believe in Christmas magic. I see it in the wonder in my children's eyes as we drive around the neighborhood enjoying the lights. I see it in the acts of kindness that emerge as people open their hearts to others. And I see it in the time spent together as a family, making memories and caring for one another.

Believe what you want during the holiday season, but do keep in mind that a little bit of magical thinking throughout the year just might save our souls.

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