Notice: Seasonal and youthful spoilers below. If you are under 13, ask your parents to read this first.
Parents are constantly assessing their children’s progress towards independence. It starts early: are they eating too little, too much? Getting too little sleep, too much? Pooping too little or too much? Some times maturity can’t come fast enough (ask my wife at the end of a hard day) and sometimes we want childhood to last forever. Our expectations, based on facts, figures and the less empirical parental feeling, are constantly being adjusted.
And so this time of the year parents all over the world conduct the Annual Fictitious Character Assessment: do they or don’t they still believe in Santa Claus (and by extension, the Tooth Fairy). The AFCA metric is the first wink towards adulthood. And this week we had to test for both characters.
Unlike other measurements we must work in stealth. Different from charting our children’s height and weight, we cannot use a wall or a scale to mark their progress towards the truth about Claus and the Fairy. And unlike, um, talking about the facts of life, we cannot just blurt out those facts. This must be handled with finesse and sensitivity for this is their first jolt of real world reality.
So with the advent of the holiday season we began to look for clues. We think our ten year old knows that Santa and the Tooth Fairy aren’t, dare I say it publicly, real. But we can only go with our gut instincts as she hasn’t sat us down for that unequivocal chat. She’s hinted that she is playing along for the benefit of her younger sister. Yet, she just spent the evening designing a tooth and toothbrush shaped note to the Tooth Fairy for two lost molars. This is the weakness of our Fictitious Character Assessment: empirical observation is confusing and misleading.
When I told my family that Santa was going to visit a local Tex-Mex restaurant chain, Austin Grill, between the hours of 6 and 8 last Tuesday, I suggested this might be a good alternative to standing in a long line at the local mall. For the record, we used to take the girls to sit on Santa’s lap late in the day Christmas Eve. As late as possible. The crowds were thinning but Santa was usually tired and ready to go home. It was a mixed blessing.
Upon my restaurant suggestion my eldest asked “Which one?” “Which one what”?” I replied. “Which Austin Grill is he coming to?” An easy pitch: I chose the one closest to our house. “But is it the REAL Santa?” my eight year old replied. With the metric she provided I replied in an appropriate fashion: “Yes, dear, he is.”
Now some parents will shudder at the lies I tell. Others will nod knowingly. There are so many realities our girls will have to learn to cope with, I’m not going to deprive them of their childhood fantasies. Life will do that to them naturally and in due course. Obviously, it wasn’t time for my youngest.
Just as we sat down to our table Santa arrived. He was round and jolly. And with only a few children in the eatery we’d quickly get our turn on his lap. He set up his workshop in the band pit (blues music was to follow Santa’s visit promptly upon his departure). My youngest immediately decided she was shy and cemented herself to the seat of our restaurant booth. Her sister jumped at the chance. Peer pressure seized my little one and the three of us walked over to meet him.
Claus was alone. No entourage of elves or lines to purchase the cheapest photo package available. We waited our turn and while the girls were seriously thinking about what they would ask from him I was watching him interact with the children ahead of us.
My youngest was not impressed with our restaurant Santa. Since her benchmark was the tired and overworked mall Santa, I wondered if our restaurant Nick was too perky for her. “No,” she declared, “he’s not the real Santa. His beard is too short.”
Personally, he was the most real Santa I’d seen in years (and the beard was big and bushy!). A real beard and real belly fat. How much more real could you get? And, as a bonus he had provided details no mall Santa had ever revealed. He brought photos of Rudolf’s daughter, Millie. And he was specific about the treats we were to leave for him: “Cookies and milk, but not chocolate milk.” As a gift to us parents he gave both of them coupons for a free dinner that night. Not real? Merry Christmas! But I kept my thoughts to myself. No intervention required. Let my youngest process the reality in her own way.
The next morning I woke up early to get ready for work. Just before the kids were to get up I woke my wife. “Did you put the tooth money under the note?” I asked. My wife was the last to go to bed so I figured she had completed the project for our eldest. She groaned. “No, I forgot. Would you do it?”
I stealthily opened the bedroom door. My daughter started to stir. I backed out quickly and returned to my wife. I didn’t want to be the one caught masquerading as the Tooth Fairy. “You do it, Here’s the money and don’t forget to answer those questions on her note,” I said as I slithered away.
At breakfast I asked with the appropriate amount of anticipation: “Did the Tooth Fairy come?” “Oh,” she said, “I forgot to look.” A sign? Only time will tell. We have learned not to make assumptions until we are told the truth, and only the truth –by our children.