Why I Let My Children Play With Elves
One of the great debates around Christmas time for Christians is whether or not to encourage or allow the belief in Santa Clause. I have friends and family on both sides of this debate so I want to be careful here. I have a great deal of respect for the desire to keep the focus on Jesus and His birth at this time of year. I want to encourage that focus, too.
And, yet, I allow my children…I encourage them even…to believe in Santa Clause.
We…my husband and I… don’t just stop there. We also have elves that visit our house every year during this season. Some would say that at best I am distracting from the message of Christ. At worst I am lying to my children.
The line between fantasy and falsehood is delightfully fuzzy during childhood. God created it to be this way and it is so important for a child to be able to play in this grey area.
In fact, the irony is that the more a child is allowed to play in this fuzzy, grey area, the better prepared he or she is for the realities of adulthood.
The question remains: is it ok…perhaps even positive…to encourage fantasy in the life of a child? My conviction is that it is not only positive…it is critically important. And, the window of time is very, very small.
Too often adults approach children as though children think like we do. They don’t. Their brains are not the same as the adult brain. In fact, it is dangerous to treat them otherwise…to not understand and acknowledge this difference. They do not think thoughts like adults do. They don’t hear like we do. They don’t understand like we do. They don’t believe like we do. Their minds are incredibly fluid and pliable and the more their minds are exercised through the work of fantasy and imagination the stronger they become for what is sometimes the cruelties of adulthood.
In fact, it is children whose window of fantasy and imagination have been disrupted and have been exposed to adult things too fast that struggle with reality MORE in adulthood. Let’s take an extreme example. A child who is exposed to adult things at an early age…things that could be considered abusive even…can end up experiencing breaks from reality as adults as a way to cope. It is almost like they are catching up in adulthood for never being allowed to be a kid.
I am guessing you know adults who demonstrate this childlike approach to adulthood…adults who struggle to keep down the realities of adult life…adults whose childhood was interrupted in some big or small way…adults who are trying to make up for lost time.
I see this dynamic a lot in my office. I see parents who forget that children just want life to be normal after the divorce, after the illness, after the trauma. They are tired of dealing with adult things. No, they DON’T want to go to a therapist! They want to go to basketball practice and to the playground. Mom and dad are aware of the adult stuff through the trauma and if the child is depressed…it is probably from picking up the adult anxiety from mom and dad. Children have been TOO aware, TOO in touch and are desperate to go back to childhood. They need to know that they CAN talk if they want to and sometimes they do, but most of the talking will probably happen later…when their verbal and cognitive skills catch up to the adult issues they have been exposed to. Kids need the safety and room to be kids.
Kids need to be kids. And, a lot of being a kid is believing in things that are fanciful, magical, and flighty.
Adults are often very uncomfortable with this world. It is a little too fluid for us. We want them to come back to earth, get more concrete, KNOW what they believe, KNOW what is real.
The only problem is the the idea of reality is such a vapor to young children. That is why so many of them lie! Early in childhood they don’t know what a lie is! What is real? What is fantasy? It is through fantasy and play that they figure these things out. A famous child specialist once said: “Play is a child’s work”. It is work we must tend to carefully.
I don’t think I am lying to my children when I go along with them and pretend that their imaginary friend is sitting next to them. I don’t think I am lying when I pretend that the elves decorated our tree with underwear…again!
Someone might say that there is a difference between allowing a child to pretend and promoting it. I disagree. In fact, I think children often do not learn to pretend if parents do not participate and lead the way.
So, yes, I let my children believe in elves. I have absolutely no qualms about it. We participate in advent and talk about the real meaning of Christmas. I KNOW my children know the true meaning of Christmas. It reveals itself in our conversations at the dinner table and bedtime. If along the way, for a relatively FEW years, my children pretend and play in a fantasy world of elves, Santa Clause, and bunnies, I think they could be the better for it.
Last night when I was tucking her in, my oldest, age 8, says to me: “Mama, we wrote letters to Santa in school today. I almost put quotations around his name”. Then she smiles at me.
The meaning is clear. Quotations. As if he doesn’t exist.
I smile back at her. I grieve a little bit as I walk out of her room. I know she is on her way out of the magical world of early childhood. She hasn’t left yet. She still plays and pretends and makes up imaginary worlds in her room with her sister. Still, I know it is coming. I only hope I have protected her enough. I only hope I have guarded her childhood heart and let her live her fantasy world out to its fullest. I hope I was a good steward of those wonder years and didn’t expose her little mind to too much too soon. I hope I didn’t interrupt her play with the world’s seriousness and gravity in a way that stole a single second of that precious time.
Imagination and fantasy helps a child learn to cope. They help pave the way for learning and growing. Creativity and this kind of play is a gift from God. I look around and see the Enemy at work constantly to steal, kill, and destroy it. And, he doesn’t mind trying from any angle. He tries through the liberal left through what children are exposed to through the media. He tries through the conservative right by the rigidity of religious rules.
I am standing in the gap for my children and fighting like a warrior for their childhood. So, while I respect and appreciate the convictions of those who would think I am lying to my children…I hope you can see a little of my heart here and understand that I am just as strong in my own beliefs. It is not a haphazard decision. It is a decision I believe honors the creative work still being done in their little minds…minds that are still being formed…formed developmentally through play, fantasy, and imagination.
I don’t expect a big fallout with Eloise. She seems to be fine with a smooth transition from belief to non-belief, from fantasy to reality. I am sure I will have a conversation at some point with her about why we have chosen to let them believe. Then, I will get to experience the next fun stage!
Eloise will likely be helping me plan the elf’s mischievousness next year. I am sure she will have better ideas than decorating the tree with underwear! I can’t wait!
Bingo! Great stuff, you fanciful creative genius you!
come on your biased!!! LOL but I totally agree!!!!
Awesome explanation, Emily! AND, why I tell my students that as long as they believe, Santa still comes. I let my own children believe as long as they would! AND, they believe in Jesus now that they are adults and they know the difference in reality and fantasy. Thanks for sharing your heart with the world!
I lived out my fantasy when I was a child at my grandmother’s dresser…she had so many beautiful bottles of perfume, lotions, etc., that I use to imagine they were all my students and I would put them in order of “tallness” as the oldest and so on…..had many days of enjoyment playing and teaching the students(bottles) and still think about it today!
Emily, I came upon your blog and was so glad to see you your response to this old age question. When I was raising my 3 daughters, I was frequently asked this question and even today I am still asked this question. Your explanation was great! I totally agree with you. Children should be children and thank you for stating it so clearly and intelligently! If you don’t mind I am going to share your blog on my Facebook.
Teddie, I would be blessed and honored if you shared it on your Facebook! Thank you for taking time to read and comment!
I love this Emily. Thank you for shining such a positive light and clarity to something Brad and I love fantasize about with Baker. Makes perfect sense!
You said what I have wanted to say for years. And very eloquently I might add! Thank you.
Emily, I missed out on the whole Santa and elves thing as a child, and that’s how I always felt, even as a grown up – that I had missed out. My parents’ arguments for telling us the truth are exactly those you refuted in this eloquent and cogently argued post. Sure wish they could have read it 30 years ago!
Emily, thank you for saying out loud what I haven’t had the words to express on my own. I could not agree more!
A friend shared your post on facebook. It is a tough question to tackle as everyone seems to have strong opinions on both sides! I grew up in a home where my parents told us that Santa was not real. My husband and I have decided to establish the same in our home with our kids. I completely respect a decision to celebrate Santa. And I don’t think that you meant this, but it IS possible to have the same desire to encourage creativity and imagination and NOT have Santa as a part of the celebration. My parents did this brilliantly and I would venture to say that my kids are some of the most creative and imaginative kids out there. I don’t think that it is an adult issue to tell them that their presents were picked by their parents who love them dearly!
Thanks for sharing your perspective and have a truly Merry Christmas!!!
Totally agree Becky! I grew up with out Santa too and never felt like I was missing out.
Now, I have 3 kids of my own. My husband is a big kid himself. They LOVE playing pretend, being creative and using their imagination. We greatly encourage all of it, but we do not use Christmas to focus on Santa, but rather Christ birth.
I know each parent has their kids very best interest at heart… With or without Santa.
Becky, I totally agree!
I grew up believing in Santa, and when I found out he wasn’t real (about age 10), I was extremely bitter. I was also very skeptical of trusting my parents. My parents are also two very, very creative individuals. My creativity is due to the fact that I used my imagination in ALL of life, not just at Christmas time. I don’t think telling your children the truth is the end of creativity. If they can’t be creative outside of Christmas time, then they probably are going to be more left-brained and rational thinkers anyway. I also don’t like the way you talk about imagination and creativity being a “kid” thing and reality being an “adult” thing. Both kids and adults should be equally able to understand what is real and what is fantasy, and they should be well versed in both.
My creativity comes out through music and art, thanks to my parents passions. My distrust of my parents continues to this day because who knows what else they may reveal to be false to me! The saga of secrets of mommy and daddy’s seemingly perfect life continues to crumble and I continue to feel resentment.
I warn all parents, CAREFULLY consider lying to your children.
We were going to Target and listening to the radio when ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ came on. The line, “You can say there’s no such thing as Santa…’ came and went, and my daughter (4 yrs) said, “What kind of thing to say is that? Of course there’s a Santa!” I’m happy she’s there. I’m happy her brothers are there. I hope that her mom and I keep encouraging the fantasy and imagination and the kid-dom. There will be PLENTY of time for spreadsheets, science, and cynicism. For right now, I’m very happy she’s rose-colored glasses. I’m a little jealous
As a first time parent, I really have been worried about this! I have sat squirming in several sermons lately where the pastors discourage “Santa” belief. I have been praying, asking, and searching for what I believe. I feel so much better after reading your post! Very encouraged!
Emily…You’re amazing, and I think that as parents we try and figure out what is best for our children, and I do believe that you hit the nail on the head with this! Sometimes we think we have to “follow the leader” and there are times that I wonder if the leader jumped off a bridge, would we? Some of how we raise our kids comes down to personal conviction, but a lot of it comes from people telling us what is right or wrong for our families. Thanks for sharing a perspective that reiterates exactly how I feel!
[…] Belief in Santa and the whole nine yards: I read this post ‘Why I Let My Children Play With Elves’ on Emily Elizabeth Stone’s blog (no relation to Clifford) which laid out a beautiful case […]
This is so great! My thoughts exactly I’m going to share it too…
Thank you for this, Emily!!
My husband’s sister decided it was HER place to tell our 9 yr old son that Santa isn’t real. I had a HUGE internal struggle (and verbal with some awesome girlfriends) with this news. I chose to not react in front of him and only asked him what he thought. He decided after seeing the movie Arthur Christmas that Santa did exist (YAY for a well bitten mommy tongue, eh?)
Tonight, a commercial came on the tv about buying things for stocking stuffers. My son said “SEE? There really isn’t a Santa!” I asked why and he said the commercial said parents could buy the stuff. I told him that Santa only left us presents (when I was young) and maybe parents buy stocking stuffers for extra stuff. That seemed to satisfy him – for now. I’m not ready for him to stop believing!
I totally agree with you that our children need to be allowed pretending, imagining and creative play!
Thank you. I turned 50 this summer and I still receive gifts from my 82 year old Santas. My stocking is magically full each Christmas morning by the elf in my home and as an elf, I too fill a stocking. I am in the business of sharing sweetness, believing in joy is one of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning.
I have found that once my kids found out the truth about Santa they learned how to appreciate Christmas in a different way. They even sat in awe last year as they discussed how many things we “pulled off” in Santa’s name. In addition, they seem to feel pleased at being part of the group of people that keep the Santa spirit alive for those children who still genuinely believe. I think they feel that this is part of their duty. (They also still pretend at home because it is a house rule–you have to “believe” in Santa to get gifts from him.)
This year we are doing elves for the first time, and they are so excited. They know what is real and what is not, but this lets them hold onto being a kid for a bit longer. It is also fun for me as a parent.
My children know the real meaning of Christmas–I try to instill it year-round. Believing in someone with a red suit does not take that away from us. If anything, it gives us a concrete image that reminds us to give selflessly.
Thanks for sharing, and have a merry Christmas. Now I must go see what those elves are up to.
I see you are a pastor’s wife…so am I. My husband and I have never flinched about letting our children believe in Santa Clause. We grew up believing and it never interfered with our relationship with Christ, or truth, or anything else. Long before I ever had children, I heard Dr. James Dobson say, “Let children believe in Santa Clause because all too soon they will have to face the harsh reality of this world, as it is.” (Or it was something like that.) I think he summed up what you put in more detail. My children (7yo d.s., 5yo d.d. and 7 1/2 month d.d.) believe in Santa Clause and if you ask them what Christmas is about, they will tell you it’s about Jesus being born, and that He is God. My son accepted Christ as his Savior at 5 1/2 years old when he said crying, “I need Jesus in my heart because I can’t be good on my own.” No adult can put it in better words than that. And I too, have been a child/family therapist, and have seen first hand those children you spoke of whose childhood was forever destroyed. So bravo to your article. Now, to go cut those pictures of the kids with Santa we had made today to give to the family. God bless and Merry Christmas!!
Reblogged this on jonathan stone’s blog and commented:
In case you missed it, here is a delightful article from my wife on why we, as Christians, have chosen to embrace the Santa Clause fantasy in our home.
[…] Reblogged from Emily Elizabeth Stone: […]
Hi my friend! I wish to say that this article is amazing, great written and include almost all significant infos. I would like to look extra posts like this .
Great post. Play is so important! Here’s an excerpt from a book I’m writing about self care:
Dr. Mark Epstein, in his book Open to Desire shares a story of living in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. The worst wreckage was right outside his family’s window and for months they had to pass through police and army checkpoints. Worry and agitation were a normal part of their day. On a prior trip to Tuscon, Dr. Epstein’s young son acquired a stuffed animal named Hoss. The animal became a transitional object — a bridge to conversation — between father and son. Father would speak in a western accent, as if he were the stuffed animal talking. A couple of nights after the terrorist attack, with sirens blaring below their home, the boy said to his toy, “Hey Hoss, did you hear what happened to the World Trade Center?” Dr. Epstein suddenly became alert and responded in a western accent as if he were the dog speaking: “Can’t say I have, Little Pardner. What happened?” After his son relayed the horrible events, Hoss (Dr. Epstein) answered, “What are you talking about, Little Pardner? Terrorists, hi-jackings, buildings collapsing! Listen to you. What kind of imagination do you have? People don’t fly airplanes into skyscrapers, you know that!” The playful interaction was a way for father and son to process the unimaginable events. In an emotional release they experienced the first laughter since the Twin Towers came down. Epstein said, “While trauma and threat tend to take away the desire for playfulness, they intensify the need for it.” He goes on to say that, “Play is one of those things, like dreaming, that seems superfluous but that we cannot seem to live without.”
oh, I could not agree more!! We included the elf on the shelf this year, and the kids loved it. childhood should be equal parts magic and mystery. Real life comes through it all, and we can handle it while it comes.
we totally steal the wonder from life when we don’t allow imagination to creep into some of our reality — and we steal their childhood. this was a great read, we need more reminders to talk about and play within other worlds with our kids!
I love make-believe! Great post.
You mean SANTA’S NOT REAL!?!?!?
Jesus likes fantasy.
He told story’s all the time.
We call ’em parables.
Loved this !
Love it! Thanks for writing this.
Emily, beautifully written! My husband and I totally agree!!
This was exactly what I have been trying to tell the ones who say I shouldn’t “lie” to my grandchildren that I have adopted. Thank you!! Now I can refer them to this to help get my point across.
Excellent post. It is important to frame our world. Thoughts are things. Thoughts become our reality.Having children remain children, and encouraging the ‘fuzzy-ness’of their thinking does help them when they need the concrete thinking of adulthood. I totally agree that children should not be exposed to Adult issues.
EXCELLENT! I am 100% in agreement with you! Can I print and share this with my parents at school?
It is so refreshing to know someone who shares my thoughts and ideas on this issue! Thank you for sharing!
Sheila, you are WELCOME to print it! I am glad you enjoyed it!
I am from the “other” side and completely understand where you are coming from. Yet, to me, there seems to be a significant difference between fostering our children’s imagination (dress up, art, pretend games, dreaming, “what if” conversations) and the way we “do” Santa generally (introducing our kids to this character, convincing them he is real, even when they question and doubt, ultimately encouraging them to “believe” in him, only to someday discover (when their doubts in what we’ve taught them and said are too numerous or strong) that it was all an elaborate ruse.
The first meets and encourages kids’ imaginations as they are and where they are — we come alongside. The second is a fantasy we invite them into, perpetuate, and let them debunk on their own.
Example: I was the kid in school that believed in Santa wholeheartedly — I trusted my parents implicitly. It was fun and made Christmas a magical time. But, I continued to be the kid in school that believed in Santa when others didn’t — I still vividly remember the live debates on the playground where I used every argument in my arsenal (probably from my parents and holiday movies) to defend and convince the unbelieving kids. I didn’t care what they said — I believed; I believed in Santa and my parents.
Then came the day when in a casual conversation one summer they somehow brought up Santa and it being make-believe off the cuff. To my absolute shock and devastation, they replied perplexed, “You didn’t know?” I was the most angry I had ever been with my parents — I was humiliated, and hated feeling like a complete fool; the joke, a cruel one I felt, was all on me.
Perhaps my story is unique, but it is a major part of why I don’t “do” Santa with my kids. To me now (an adult), to me then (a kid), it feels like lying, or at the very least manipulation, even if the adult intention is “good.”
I agree with you on this other view. It makes me sad to read above that people who didn’t do Santa feel like they missed out. Santa is not what Christmas is about – when it comes to Jesus, how can you ever feel like you are missing out? And a child can have plenty of make believe in their life without that involving Santa. My 3 year old spent 2 hours last night riding her invisible horse and showing it off to me, and I nodded and said it was beautiful – that is how we play pretend. I don’t then go out of my way for an entire month to take her to sit on an invisible horse, leave out food for an invisible horse, have her look for a horse elf every single morning, etc. etc. You are exactly right when you say that the way people “do” Santa is completely different from most other make believe. And my daughter knows what pretend is – she takes a picture with santa and watches some movies with him in it, but we are not going to focus on him daily. I know so many people who do the elf thing but also tell their kids that Jesus is the real reason for Christmas – except they spend more time every day looking for the elf than actually talking about Jesus! What kind of message does this send to your kids? That Jesus isn’t really what it’s all about. The argument here that Santa is only make-believe fun only makes sense if you only put as much emphasis on Santa as you do on other cartoon characters. Jesus came to die for us – that is a BIG DEAL. He came and became human and suffered for us. I feel like he would be sad if he saw me having my daughter look for an elf every single morning when this holiday is supposed to be about HIM. That is why we look for a star every morning instead – all of the fun, but we have even more opportunity to talk about Jesus. Above all, what we teach and how we celebrate should be Biblical – not about what is most fun for our kids, although I think we can have plenty of fun, just as much fun, if not more fun, without Santa even being involved. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2009/12/15/wintertime-worship-santa-jesus
To the “Other view”
I respect this. I have a family member who had a traumatic experience when she discovered the “truth”. She never did the Santa thing either.
People have a wide variety of opinions on this subject. I am thankful for the different voices.
I have a funny story about one of my daughters figuring it out. I was so nervous because I had heard from my family member about this traumatic situation and even though I loved believing in Santa for a few short years I was worried about her reaction.
When she figured out that the elves weren’t real she was quiet for a minute…and then busted out laughing…”You mean you and daddy made all of those messes…and then had to clean them up!?”
She thought it was hysterical. I guess it IS pretty hysterical!
Thanks for sharing your perspective. I appreciate it.
Telling a child Santa is a fun thing we pretend, doesn’t mean they can no longer – play, pretend, live in a fantasy worlds, make up imaginary things/friends, and grow healthy. The world of fantasy is just that, fantasy, and we know that. Kids know that, kids know that their imaginary friend is imaginary. They know that mom and dad, and even they can not see that person they made up. Why do we have to feel like they need to 100% believe this to be truth? Why is that to imperative? My parents never hid Santa from me, but I always knew he was not real. I never lacked from that. I was one of the most imaginative children they have ever had. I lived in a world of fantasy daily, even today as an adult, I write children’s books. I honestly do not think it is essential to convince your children that something is real, in order for them to be able to face adult hood.
I actually completely agree. I would never MAKE my children believe in Santa Clause. I am so sorry if something about my post caused you to think I would force them to believe. When I say “encourage” I mean that I play along with them. I also don’t lie to them if they ask directly. If they ask: “Is Santa real?” I say: “What do you think?” I have one who no longer believes and she has fun playing along with us. I have another child who has had the conversation with me and has determined that she no longer believes, but this year she is pretending she does believe. I play along. We have fun with it as a family.
Thanks so much for your comment. It let me me that clarification.
I think you can encourage imagination and fantasy while letting your child be “in ” on the fun. I love the worlds my daughter creates much more than the ones I could make up for her. Because the neighbors have an elf, she and I purchased an ornamental stuffed elf together. It’s been great fun creating new hiding places. He never leaves messes, though, or spies. Only ideas on ways to spread kindness and cheer! Santa is our one mythical lie, here, but I think that saying gifts are for the good children only wrongs children in three ways. A: in the spirit of Christmas, a gift is a token of love that should be given in Christ’s spirit, unconditionally. B: it teaches that a child can be labeled “good” or “bad.” C: Socioeconomic disparity.
Just my ever developing take on it!
I have a young daughter and it was never a question to us to let her believe. I grew up with Santa and yet, I never felt like my parents were lying to me. Whenever I was old enough I remember asking “Is Santa real?” My parents would respond with “There really was a man named St. Nicholas… ” and tell me about him. And my dad had a traumatic experience with Santa and yet he wanted me to believe in the magic and I want my daughter to have the magic. It’s all about how you choose to play Santa. If you teach Santa as the embodiment of giving to others and spreading Jesus love then you’ve done your job.
My main issue with people who don’t do Santa is the fact that those children (not all but some) maybe the very ones who take the magic away from my child with well meant “my mom or dad says there isn’t a Santa, that your parents just make that up.”
I hope that she can have the magic for just a little while.
T and I were just chatting about the “fantasy” world of children and the correlating “when” and “where” we place boundaries. I hadn’t read this 2 years ago but am glad I read it today.
[…] wrote a post two years ago called “Why I Let My Children Play With Elves“. There is no way I could have anticipated the response I got from both “sides” […]