The other day I was at the pool with our youngest, age 10. While Jackson was swimming, a little girl lost a tooth in the pool. For about 10 minutes, every kid in the pool was putting on their goggles and diving down to the pool floor in the hopes of finding the lost tooth. I bet Jackson dove down two dozen times as part of the search party. But in the end, nobody ever found the tooth. For all I know, it’s still on the bottom of the pool.
As Jackson and I were leaving, the girl’s mother had her arms wrapped around the child, trying to console her. “Maybe the Tooth Fairy will still come and see you tonight,” she said desperately. Since I was the only adult within earshot at the time, the Mom looked up as she was talking and gave me one of those knowing raised-eyebrow-head-nods as if to enlist me to the cause as well. Realizing that I suddenly had a part to play, I said, “Yeah, I hear the Tooth Fairy doesn’t even take your tooth anymore; she just leaves money.” Not great, but the best I could do on short notice. The little girl didn’t even look up at me, so I quickly looked to the mother with my own raised-eyebrow expression, silently asking, “Good enough?” She thanked me with a smile and I walked to the truck with the satisfaction that I had played such a key role in helping to maintain the child’s innocence.
When we got in the truck, Jackson casually announced, “Dad, I don’t believe in magic anymore.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know, magic stuff like the Tooth Fairy.”
“Yeah, that’s just the parents giving money to their kids.”
For years, we’ve encouraged our kids to ask us anything and we promised that our answers would be as honest as possible. Our older children have taken us up on this and we had some version of this conversation with each of them independently. But neither of them ever declared their lack of faith so brazenly. Jackson, being the youngest, wasn’t exactly asking me anything. He was telling me.
I said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory.”
Jackson rolled his eyes. “Dad. It’s not a theory. There’s no such thing as the Tooth Fairy. Right?”
There it is! I thought. There’s still that little bit of doubt. He still has to ask in order to be sure. But we promised honesty. So I gave him an honest answer. “Right,” I said. “There’s no Tooth Fairy.”
“Good,” he replied. “I always thought it was creepy that somebody else was coming into my room at night anyway.”
That’s a really good point, I thought.
But Jackson continued. “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny either. That’s just parents, too.”
I sat there silently.
“Isn’t that right?”
Again, an honest answer for an honest question. “Yes, son. There’s no such thing as the Easter Bunny either.”
We sat in silence for a long moment. This is the sound of his childhood dying, I thought.
Finally Jackson took a deep breath and said, “I also don’t believe in Ollie.”
Ollie is the name of our “elf” who visits us every year in the weeks leading up to Christmas. For as far back as I can remember, Ollie comes to our house the first night our Christmas tree is up. By day, he looks like an ordinary doll, one you might find on the shelves of your favorite department store. But at night, Ollie comes to life and magically teleports back to the North Pole to report all your deeds, either good or bad, directly to Santa Claus himself. Or something like that. After giving his naughty-or-nice report, Ollie rides a wave of magical pixie dust to arrive back to our house by sunrise. Our proof of this 10,000 mile roundtrip adventure is that Ollie is in a different location in our home each morning.
I said, “So, how do you think Ollie moves around the house? You don’t think he flies to the North Pole each night?”
Jackson said, “I saw the box that y’all keep him in. Mom keeps it hidden in your closet.”
I sat there silently, thinking to myself, When were you going through my closet?
“Ollie’s not real, is he, Dad?”
“Nope. Not real.”
Another long silence ensued.
“So, that’s it,” I said. “You don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Ollie. Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
Jackson paused. “Well…I guess that just leaves Santa.”
“Yep,” I said. “Just Santa.”
We had come right here to the brink and yet Jackson was still a bit hesitant. It’s like he was trying to break up with me about Santa, only he couldn’t find the right words. Finally, he just went for it.
“Dad, Santa isn’t real. Is he?”
“Nope. He’s not.”
That’s when I told Jackson what I told his older brother and sister: Santa Claus is just a game that parents play with their kids. When the kids are really little, it’s a lot of fun because of that sense of “magic.” But as the kids get older, the game gets harder and harder. I told him it always bothered me that “Santa” got credit for all the cool gifts anyway. “Honestly, I’m glad you know now,” I told him. “It’ll make things so much easier on your mother and me this Christmas.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, now that the cat’s out of the bag, I don’t have to buy you all those Santa presents anymore!”
“Oh,” Jackson said.
Another long pause.
“We can still play the game, can’t we? Even though I know? I mean, it’s still a fun game.”
And something just felt right about the idea of knowing and yet still playing the game. I wanted to tell my son that I don’t believe in magic anymore either, but I still believe in wonder and I still believe in hope. And that’s what the game has always been about for me anyway.
“Absolutely, son. We can still play the game.”
“Besides,” I told him. “Your older brother and sister still think Santa is real.”
I know, I know. But don’t tell him yet. It makes the game so much more fun.