“…and they all lived happily ever after.”
No. No they did not.
I’m confused about how honest I should try to be with my three-year-old son. I’m conflicted about the Santa Clause ‘lie’. I’m struggling a little bit with the whole Easter Bunny thing. And I don’t know whether to let him know that, despite what his storybooks tell him, no one lives ‘happily ever after’.
From such an early age, we begin to build this socially-constructed myth that happiness is the normal, natural, default state for humans. And most of the time we don’t even know that we’re complicit in this myth. How many times as an adult have you seen a sad child and instinctively asked “What’s wrong?”. Sad = wrong. Happy = right. Instead of validating negative emotions, we tend to demonise them.
And children’s books are full of this narrative. Of course, they tell stories of challenge and struggle and fear, but in the final chapter, the sadness goes away, the ice melts, the little fish gets reunited with his family and everyone is okay and happy again. Back to the way it should be. Happy!
Clearly, there is a lot to be said for protecting the innocence of childhood. But there’s also a risk that, if the illusion is too great, if we build an impenetrable happiness myth, then we set our children up for unrealistic comparisons that can cause real problems later in life.
So, just as the best teachers demonstrate balance in their pedagogy, there is a middle-ground we should aim for with children. Let them get lost in the joy and wonder of Santa. And when they feel upset or afraid or disappointed, instead of asking “What’s wrong?”, be there, hold them, and say something like “I can see that you’re sad, I’m here with you. Tell me about what you’re feeling.”
The Santa and the Easter Bunny myths are relatively harmless; the happiness myth is not.