My parents shattered the Tooth Fairy a couple of weeks ago. My children, niece and nephew, ages 12 and 9, were on Zoom with Gran and Grandaddy. Gran started explaining how, when I was 11, she and Grandaddy went to collect the final tooth I left beneath my pillow.
My eyes widened. I manically texted my parents and sister, “FYI: The Tooth Fairy is a real magical being that still serves our family!”
My parents were sharing poetry and sweetly included some of my childhood work. When I lost my last tooth, I wrote a poem of farewell and gratitude to the Tooth Fairy, “sending” it with the tooth. I don’t recall my exact level of Tooth Fairy belief, but I addressed the poem to her, not my parents. She wrote back.
This is family lore largely because of that year’s Riverview Elementary 6th Grade Poetry Reading, which featured the epistolary Tooth Fairy poem and a guest appearance by my father in drag.
After I read my piece, he burst through the classroom accordion divider, a vision in 1980s tennis whites, a pearly tulle can-can and a short blond wig, his wand a beribboned caduceus made of a tin-foiled chair leg. He tapped fellow parents on the head, sat on another dad’s lap, and stood with me at the lectern. Although his voice couldn’t sustain its initial falsetto, he stayed mostly in character.
A generation later, s/he reappeared during E-learning With Gran And Grandaddy’s Poetry II session to grandchildish giggles. I hoped that my 9-year-old, Sylvia, was sufficiently distracted to miss the magic-busting logistics talk.
My son, Theo, shot me a mildly triumphant glance, as if to say, “See! She’s not real!”
He tried to reveal Santa’s identity last year with highly probing questions, which I semantically evaded. In many ways I still believe in this magic, so I think I’m convincing. Eventually, I answered with a question: “Sweetheart, do you want to keep believing in Santa Claus?” He paused, thought very hard and nodded.
Discovering human hands behind childhood icons doesn’t always destroy the magic. Sometimes, kids can spend years there, knowing and not knowing, willing belief, holding disbelief at bay, diving deeper into certain stories and traditions while discovering new contradictions all the time. This liminal space is worth protecting. At the very least, it calls for careful handling.
Alas, such care is conspicuously absent from articles bemoaning the state of American childhood. I cannot count how many headlines have proclaimed such crises over the past decade, variously attributed to our parenting or our children. Not one seriously addresses the role of kids’ fantasy play in healthy development.
The Atlantic magazine’s May cover story is only the latest, announcing among crimson scribbles “The Anxious Child” as the current “crisis of modern parenting.” It—utterly unsurprisingly—links anxious children to the anxious behaviors of their anxious parents.
In 11 pages, writer Kate Julian never mentions that among children’s best tools for dealing with hard topics, harsh realities and anxiety is imaginative play. On the contrary, she dismisses it, pitting a childhood icon against parents’ avoidance of tough topics and troubling realities: “Some adults think their fourth graders believe in Santa Claus and don’t know how babies are made while other adults—or maybe some of the same adults—think fourth graders should have smartphones.”
“[T]he easy access many of them now have to Pornhub and viral videos of real-life violence” is a disturbing truth of wired childhoods and worth ongoing family conversation. Parents dodging frank, empathic dialogue is a problem. But tying that avoidance to Santa as a “desire to keep kids in the dark” doesn’t correct it. It forces a bizarre binary that, itself, avoids an important part of conversations about childhood.
One of childhood’s beauties is kids’ ability to see beyond such forced binaries, which seem too much to define the adult world. Think: nature vs nurture, or environment vs. economy.
Perhaps one of the best ways to address “childhood,” American or otherwise, in crisis or not, is to encourage more magic, whimsy and openness to imagination’s complex worlds, in all kids’ developmentally appropriate degrees of belief. Maybe allowing kids more time to dream beyond forced binaries will extend to adults more willing to think beyond either-or frameworks.
This isn’t advocating static preservation of idealized childhoods. Rather, it’s about consciously protecting kids’ capacity to fully inhabit and explore the reign of their imaginations—for as long as possible.
Writer-illustrator William Joyce, author of The Guardians books and DreamWorks’ Rise of The Guardians, says as much describing his series: “The Man in the Moon and the Sandman and Santa Claus, and all those guys are magnificent, fantastic beings that are capable of extraordinary things and all in the defense of kids, to keep them safe, to keep their imaginations alive and their hearts happy and soaring and full of possibilities.”
Childhood’s magic lies in a boundless understanding of what’s possible. Myths, fairy tales, make-believe and superhero sagas all traffic in fantastical possibilities, grand feats, mystical creatures, superhuman powers and a fulminous and charitable natural world. These stories can be complex—and children create their own stories in infinite variety.
It’s no surprise that science imagineer and fantastical-creature lookalike Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” He also supposedly encouraged reading fairy tales.
Einstein quotes-cum-memes are persistent partly because an icon of modern science encouraging fanciful thinking seems incongruous on its surface. But science and imagination are huge categories with blurry edges. They’re not needfully incompatible, especially for children and imagineers.
The botanist can be wowed by the magic of photosynthesis, the physicist by quarks. Just as surely, a fourth-grader can understand human reproduction, talk about screen time, and wake up excited to see what the Tooth Fairy left. Shutting out the magic of possibilities improves neither scholarship or parenting, and it’s damaging to kids.
If there’s any crisis of the modern childhood, it’s Joyce’s lament: “We sort of squeeze the imagination out of children, and make them believe so much in what is in front of us. We forget the poetry of possibility is important.”
Maybe The Atlantic’s anxious children and their parents could simply do with a little more wonder and outlandish possibility in their lives.
Fortunately, there are books, and writers who understand the vitality of fantasy. The genre’s stature among middle-grade and young-adult fiction is no accident: Kids’ most-read book lists always include fantasy novels. Such series as Lord of the Rings, Narnia and Harry Potter are pillars of adolescence, along with ever-expanding shelves of unicorn tales, mystical graphic novels, dystopian trilogies like The Hunger Games, mythology riffs from Rick Riordan and touchstones like Oz and Peter Pan.
For older kids no longer comfortable dressing up as fairies or spotting elves, books invite other ways of inhabiting magic and crossing boundaries. Games like the resurgent Dungeons & Dragons and Magic, The Gathering, do this, too. Fantastical books and games proactively extend childhood while also helping children think with sophistication and nuance.
Echoing scores of educators, writer and professor Victoria Flanagan notes that fantasy “prompts young readers to play at seeing the world in different ways and accordingly teaches them to construct meaning by making connections between seemingly unrelated concepts or things.” Fantasy’s growing social inclusivity reveals its responsiveness to kids’ parallel, reality-based worlds. Anyone observing a child’s fantasy play might notice the same.
Magic is as much about connection and inference as it is about escaping the mundane, as much about social realities as it is about the impossible. It can even cross generations: All we have to do to appreciate wonder is dip back into Tolkein or consider how those tiny blue butterflies on the forest trail look an awful lot like fairies.
Encouraging kids’ imaginations isn’t hawking nefarious lies. On the contrary, there’s wisdom in protecting the magic of childhood, perhaps especially when the real world seems uncertain and frightening.
This in no way diluted the effectiveness of Adern’s leadership, widely seen as exemplary, most recently in her government’s quick response to and management of the novel coronavirus.
Actually, modeling decisive, proactive political action while expressing empathy and honoring childhood magic might make Adern a magical being herself.
She’s onto something fundamental: Including children and their magical icons made them feel seen and heard. It not only spoke to their imaginations, but how their imaginations can make them feel better.
Sylvia gets this. She thinks it’s important to believe in magical creatures. We talk about the apricot fairies outside her window when she can’t sleep, and she builds gnome houses while her brother sorts his Magic cards and draws intricate dragons.
“Especially now, when I can’t see my friends, I’m lonely,” she tells me. “I can talk to fairies and the gnomes, and they just listen.”
As children grow and we adapt to a world in pandemic, we parents would do well to remember that many aspects of wellbeing need tending. The deep values of empathy, imagination and wonder are worth keeping alive for our children as long as possible—so that they may persist into their adulthoods.