Six years old is the age when hard questions begin. I know because I’ve been fielding them for six weeks and they all revolve around Santa. How to be truthful with our child and yet encourage her imagination? To use Christian-ese speak, how do I “speak the truth in love” to my ever so curious six year old?
Linda Poland, Jonesborough’s resident storyteller, tells a story about her grandmother that gave my parenting skills some much needed direction. Linda was a very distraught six year old one Christmas season. She had just defended Santa’s existence to her older brothers when she complained to her grandmother about the argument. Grandmother did not take sides. She responded by taking Linda on an unexpected field trip.
Dr. Tate’s pharmacy and department store was the local shop in town that had everything. Linda had visited that store hundreds of times with her family. She knew it well. But this time was different. Grandmother had left her alone in the store with a ten dollar bill. Her assignment was to think of someone who was in real need of something, find it and buy it for them. Grandmother patiently waited in the car. After recovering from the realization that she was alone in a store for the first time, little Linda became entranced by the search for someone with a true need. After a while, she recalled how a little boy in her class never went outside to play. His mother sent a note explaining that he had a cough and needed to stay indoors. Little Billy never had a cough. And little Linda was on the search for a coat. She found a red, size 7, coat with fur lining on the hood. Perfect! With this shopping find over her arm and a ten dollar bill clenched in her fist, Linda approached the cash register. Mrs. Tate, who manned the register, took one look at the price tag and asked Linda if she was buying this for someone. Linda spilled the story of Billy in great detail as Mrs. Tate put the ten dollar bill in the register and the coat in a bag.
Back home, as Linda’s grandmother wrapped the coat in shiny paper, she told Linda about the joy of being Santa’s helper. It was job the required the greatest level of secrecy. For it was through that secrecy that Santa truly existed at his best. After the gift was prepared with Billy’s name, both grandmother and Linda bundled up and once again embarked on a field trip. Two houses down from Billy’s, Grandmother parked the car. She and Linda sneaked through the bushed like spies on a mission. Grandmother sent Linda to the door to deliver the present, and then resent her to knock on the door. Hunkered down behind the bushes and out of sight, Linda learned what it meant to be Santa’s helper. Billy answered the door, ripped open the package and hugged his new red coat. Linda had made the journey from a literal Santa to the joy of being Santa’s helpers. She had grasped the potential of her little hands and her big heart and experienced the joy of generosity.
Years later, Linda had inherited her grandmother’s Bible. Tucked away, tight to the spine of the Bible was a Dr. Tate’s pharmacy and department store price tag for one red coat, size 7. The price was twenty dollars. Linda reasoned that Mrs. Tate must have been one of Santa’s helpers too.
Sometimes “speaking the truth in love” means unexpected field trips, ten dollar bills and letting a six year old explore the spirit of generosity. After all, love is a verb.
My daughter listens to me in detail. I know because if something doesn’t work out exactly as I have predicted, she’s on it. She also dresses like me. Just a couple of months ago, she begged for a pair of “athletic pants”. She choose a pair that had a vertical stripe on the side and insisted that I wear my vertical stripe pair the very next day as she sported hers. Just last week, she had a smile of satisfaction when our hairdresser asked if she wanted layers in her hair just like her mom. I know that won’t last long. She is six. But I plan to cash it in while I can.
But also what is working against me in the great Santa debate is she’s six. She is a literal thinker and is only beginning to understand that immediate gratification is not how the world works. So how do we handle “Santa”?
What I (and my husband) have decided is that this picture is not the best route.
My goal is less immediate…..and less painful. I hope to match words about Santa with acts of mercy to lay a path for my daughter to walk upon as she grows. My aspiration is to make Santa part of the plan for the spiritual development of my daughter. From the example of Linda’s unexpected field trip I ask myself: what things do we DO in our household that teaches my daughter compassion and generosity? Everything that “Santa” stands for – do we have that spirit behind what we do?
I chose that as a goal because faithful men and women who have studied the development of brain have taught me that my daughter’s brain will grow and change. She will begin to think for herself (DARN!). And as her analytical side develops the first place she will point her newly acquired cranial microscope will be ME and DADDY. She will abandon the idea of a literal Santa. Our hope is that she will not abandon the goodwill that the season encourages. Our hope is that this goodwill and her participation in it will point her to the manger, not the disillusion of a sled.
But for now…..how do we address Santa? She has inquired about his existence. My first round of defense was to play the “clinically trained chaplain card” – What do you think? She gives me a breakdown of 1st grade lunchroom debate. The awkward and dreaded question still lingers in the air. Then I point to the changes in decorations, the change in the news cycle (a focus on helping others), the change in our shopping habits (hunting gifts for loved ones and an angel tree kid), the change in our church worship cycle (celebrating the birth) and so on. I refocus her those changes and she adds a couple to this list. Santa helps us do that, I assure her. After a moment of thought she asks, “But you and Daddy do the presents and stocking thing, right?” (Oh, crap! as my palms get sweaty.) I respond, “You can believe that if you like. Or you can believe that Santa is magical and only once a year you get showered with gifts. It’s OK to believe with your friends and get swept away in the Christmas movies. I enjoy Santa too and I like to think about him this time of year.”
Sometimes all we need is permission to be child-like.
And that suffices…until next year. She decides to “enjoy Santa too”….mostly because she is ready to move on to begging for a Sonic burger run or showing me a new dance move. But I believe she is satisfied for the moment because she is six and she wants to be like Mommy. So she decides to “enjoy Santa too” as she dances around the kitchen in her athletic pants. Some may say that I have dodged the Santa Bullet. But actually I think I made Santa part of a bigger picture.
Happy New Year Pondering Prophets.