Aug 18, 2011

The Tooth Fairy and Other Necessities

Here is an interesting thing: a story on called Believing in the Tooth Fairy Can Warp Your Mind claims that children who believe in the tooth fairy, Santa Claus etc experience false memories and supernatural experiences that match their beliefs.

Photo by vauvau via Flickr Creative Commons
Now I am sure that believing in the Tooth Fairy and the rest when you're a little kid serves some very valuable purpose, so is worth the false memory risk. I am just not able to back this up with any evidence. Or detail. Or even a rational theory. But I think it's OK.

The thing is, I believe that where there is a massive, pervasive and long-standing cultural tradition, there is probably a purpose to it. (The Anthropology I majored in at uni all those years ago I guess). I don't mean "If everyone does it then it's OK", and I don't mean "If it's always been done that way then it is right" ...except that maybe I sort of do. In some cases.

I told you I can't back this up.

My very strong opinion is that humans are animals and our culture and everything we have built are all part of our response to our environment just like those of other animals. Other animals have language, culture and built environments too. I think what we build and create is part of nature as much as a beaver dam is part of nature.  And I think that cultural traditions like the tooth fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus probably serve a purpose, in a similar way to how fairy tales and myths and legends serve a purpose (warning, guiding, teaching, etc).

I'm not sure what that purpose is, but I think it's there.

Before I had kids I used to scoff a little at those parents you occasionally hear about who don't do Santa because they don't believe in lying to their children. I love Santa and I love the magic of childhood - but now that I have kids I kind of understand what those parents are talking about. I would never withhold Santa from my young kids, but that doesn't stop me getting a twinge of unease or guilt sometimes over the whole thing. That's despite the firm belief I have that Santa is a good thing and deserves to be celebrated.

I am finding some parallels with religious instruction here. I am an atheist and have been since the age of 13 when I decided not to become 'confirmed' in the Catholic church and angered my (Catholic but not very religious) father with this decision, in one of the few times during my childhood that I stood against my parents on anything.  I am not, however, anti-religion. I don't believe ethics and morality come from religion; they are innate in us and we use religion in part to frame them. I don't believe that religion causes wars - politics and economic pressures do that. I do think we can all agree that extremist religious beliefs of any flavour are awful and oppressive and cause misery. But I also see religion give strength and satisfaction to most people and there is no harm in that.

So with all this in mind, I decided long ago that I would give my kids a mild dose of religion in their childhoods, to allow them into this big part of our culture and it would do no harm. (After all, I could gently steer them towards the "truth" later on, if their own minds didn't get them there first...)
My husband is Greek Orthodox and is that kind of "religious" that most people are - kind of believing in God and some form of gentle love-thy-neighbor religion, goes to church at Easter, but hates the trappings of organised religion.
So our kids were baptised Greek Orthodox and they attend the standard religious instruction at their primary school.

But what I didn't expect was the real discomfort that I feel when they come home from school and ask me (or tell me) about God and Jesus and Heaven. I am struggling a little, and I realise I didn't really think this through. I find myself wishing we had opted them out, though I know my husband would not have wanted that, and even though I still think it's good to give kids some religious exposure so they can understand it and make an informed choice later on. I sometimes just say "yes" to their questions; I sometimes hear myself spouting a proper "religious" response to their religious questions, and sometimes I tell them to ask their teacher. Initially I tried the old "Well, some people believe..." but that was no help. I just got the searching look and "Do you believe it Mummy?" "Sure" I mumbled and quickly changed the subject, hating myself thoroughly. I am always on the lookout for some extreme lunacy in what they're being taught, but so far there doesn't seem to be any of the kind of scary stuff we've read in the papers about the chaplaincy program.

I asked my mum about this and she had a good suggestion: "Just think of it a bit like Santa."
(My mum is not an atheist but she knew where I was coming from.) I am trying to follow that, and not feel like I am misleading my kids or violating their rights by warping them with beliefs that I truly believe are false. (It's not that bad, right?)

So that brings me back to the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa. I am sure that somewhere there is a purpose to these myths, apart from the lovely one of providing some delight and magic for children. Perhaps they are similar to religion, providing a framework for things like ethics (be good!), reward and punishment, the comfort of a powerful all-knowing being looking after you, etc. Maybe they are also for the parents - to remind us of the mystery and magic of childhood and to serve as a metaphor for our jobs to look after and guide our children.

I can't imagine a childhood without the wonder and magic of the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. (I am of course fully aware that plenty of children all over the world do without). I know my kids won't believe in them as long as we did - already at five their minds are working away at it, looking for the inconsistencies and the holes, and asking questions. And I know I'm inconsistent - I won't let them believe in other fairies, mermaids or dragons, however lovely those are. But I guess the important bit is fitting into the culture - you want them to be a part of the big common beliefs, and part of the cultural frameworks, not a crazy person believing in anything that comes their way.

And hopefully not end up as conflicted and self-torturing as their mum!


I think I overthunk it. I posted the link to the Tooth Fairy story on Facebook and a friend has replied about the Tooth Fairy:
"It is something to look forward to and it stops you from thinking of how disgusting a bloody tooth is and instead of throwing it in the trash you actually get a reward for all the tears."
That's it - it's really that simple!


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