The other day, Myla and I had a great idea to give our old Gnome House a reboot. We made it when she was around age four, and it’s gotten pretty old and dusty. We went to the craft store, picked up a few things, and got everything ready.
Overflowing with ideas, Myla excitedly said, “oh, we could put a little blanket in there, and some flowers, and remember how the gnomes came and made little footprints and even left us a little note?”
And then her face froze. “Or….” she said very carefully, with starling clarity. “…Or…did YOU leave the note?”
I was a little startled. I make a point not to EVER lie to my daughter about important things, and while I love magic, I’ve always hated to “lie” about those traditional things like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. But somehow, as a parent, you get sort of peer-pressured into doing all that, right? I’ve always made a point to tell her “it’s real if you BELIEVE it’s real.” But deep down, I always assumed she knew it was all pretend. I used to even ask her “do you want to know the truth, or the story?” …and she ALWAYS very seriously chose the story.
She said, “I wasn’t sure if it was real. But there was a NOTE, so….that was you?” Urg. My heart sank.
If you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you might remember the Gnome House story, and how we talked about how magical things were real if you believed they were real.
I had always told her that Santa was more an IDEA, and that you can make your own Christmas by doing nice things for others. And then, what did we do? We left cookies and milk for Santa.
When she started losing teeth, SHE came to me, excited that the tooth fairy would leave her a coin. So what could I do? I left a coin, and a little receipt that said “thank you! -Tooth Fairy.”
A couple of years ago, her classroom had an Elf on the Shelf, and I was SO grateful, thinking I had escaped THAT dreaded curse. Until we walked into a store, and there they were: HUNDREDS of elves for sale, waiting to sit on shelves. She GASPED saying, “we can adopt our OWN?!?!?” So what could I do? I had to start putting that dang elf into goofier and goofier situations for her to discover every day of December.
So, as we dusted off the old gnome house and decorated it, we talked a lot about magic. I told her that I had offered her the truth SEVERAL times, and she didn’t want it. Of course she preferred the fairy tale, who wouldn’t?
We painted over the old art, and filled it with new, and I talked to her, like a grownup. Like I always do.
First, I asked if she was sad. She said no, not at all–that she was just a little confused. She was just trying to piece it all together.
I said, I really don’t like to not tell you to the truth. And I don’t want you to think I am lying to you. But there are magic secrets as a parent that you sort of go along with it. Because kids are born with special magic, and parents REALLLY don’t want kids to lose that. Because as you get older, and more cranky about things, you start thinking everything’s terrible and nothing is fun. When you become a teenager, you sort of lose that magic for a moment, and don’t believe in it anymore, and everything seems like it sucks.
Magic is hard to see. Bad things are MUCH easier to see. But here’s a secret: If you look around and you can’t find any magic, you can CREATE your own! And that’s why parents do things like that. So kids don’t lose their magic. Life would be boring without any magic…
We talked about other things, too. It wasn’t ALL serious. There were lots of giggles and goofiness. It wasn’t an after-school special TV drama or anything.
I told her that as artists, we’re very lucky, because we have EXTRA magic. We get to paint it, sculpt it, animate it, and show it to other people who might not be able to see it themselves. We get to help keep that magic alive in people.
She seemed to happily accept all of this, but I felt my heart break inside a little. I don’t remember when I first navigated this stuff myself, but my parents handled it well, because I don’t seem to have any lifelong trauma from it all. But I still can’t help but imagine that I heard her heart break a little.
We finished our gnome house, which she called “Pixies Place,” where all things are welcome. She only wrote a few of them on the list, but you get the idea.
The next day (after talking to both my husband and then my mother as to what to do), I took her out for ice cream, and we talked more about it. I said, “here’s the thing: now that you’re old enough, YOU get to be a magic maker for other people. I kept the magic around for you as long as I could when you were younger. Now that you’re older, you keep the magic for other kids.” “And sometimes, even for grownups who have lost their magic!” she said. And that’s exactly right.
My mom had a great idea, of maybe a “symbol” of graduation, or initiation into this sort of “big kid club,” so I gave her a little necklace I used to wear as a teen…a little fairy with a glass bead ball. It looked like magic to me, and seemed to fit the situation perfectly.
She said if you looked closely, you can imagine all sorts of colors in it–for all of the holidays, and all of the magic. She seemed pretty happy and proud. I was glad.
And I hope that’s enough. I want her to have that special magic, but she does need to know that sometimes YOU are the one that makes the magic, and that’s okay!
You really do have to LOOK for that magic as you grow up, because it gets harder and harder to find the older you get. And if you get to the point where you just can’t find it, you have to MAKE some magic yourself. It’s the best we can do.
A word of warning: This post is a little long, but it has a point. Hang in there.
Christmas is weird. It’s a strange time for a parent, and strange time for a kid. What you believe and don’t believe? Now THAT is the question. My parents always taught me that Santa was more about an idea, a spirit of giving. That there WAS a St. Nick, but now we sort of carry on the magic and spread the love around. And all that jazz.
(Now it’s a bit of a hike to get from Santa to building a gnome house, but please stick around and follow me, here…)
I always felt weird about flat-out lying about a big man sneaking into our house in the middle of the night (bringing toys or not)…especially since my husband’s deployed and she’s ALREADY worried about “strangers.” I found it hard to sell that when it didn’t really make a whole lot of sense, did it? I couldn’t really ever get into the “Elf on the Shelf” idea for the same reason.
So when our VERY practical daughter asked me about Santa, I told her the same thing my parents did. And she was silent. Which usually means she’s mulling it over. So I wasn’t surprised when later she asked the same thing: “Is Santa real?” I got the feeling that she wasn’t happy with my previous explanation, so I tried again in the same way, adding an explanation that it’s fun to PRETEND that he’s real. She silently mulled it over once more, and still later asked me again: “Some kids at school say that Santa is NOT real. Is that right?”
Finally, torn between explaining the real story of Santa and going along with a “lie,” I asked her: “Well, what do YOU believe?” And she thought about it awhile, very seriously contemplating it, and finally said firmly, “I think he’s real.” “Okay,” I said. “Then he’s real.” I’m not sure she entirely convinced herself, but she enjoyed the idea.
The Santa Debate brought questions of other anomalies. “Are fairies real? Are aliens real? Witches? What about gnomes?” To each I would respond, “I don’t know—you know, I’ve never SEEN one, so I don’t know if they’re real or not. But what do YOU believe?” She asked me about the kids at school, and I said, “People believe all kinds of things. And since nobody knows for sure, then nobody is wrong. You believe what you believe, and you let other people believe what they believe.”
So somehow, we got on the topic of gnomes.
I told her a story about how when I was a kid, my parents took my sister and I on a walk in the woods, and my dad helped us construct a little bridge across a tiny stream with sticks and dental floss. Days later, when we came back to check on it, someone had left a note saying, “Thanks, good job!” We joked that the gnomes had left it. Our daughter loved that story, and suggested we build a gnome house and that maybe if we did, they’d come visit US. I sort of agreed to it, but didn’t think much else about it, dismissing it as one of the hundreds of project ideas she has in any given hour. But days later, and she was still persistent.
So we built a gnome house.
It was a fun little project, and we got all our supplies on a quick visit to the craft store. She was excited picking out stickers and decorative things to go along with it. I went the easy route and started with those pre-made papier-mache houses you find at the craft store for $5. While she happily decorated it with markered gnomes, I hot-glued sticks and fake plants to the roof.
She drew all over the outside, and filled the inside with a doodled Christmas tree (probably influenced by the fact that ours is still up. Don’t judge.) and other stickers & doodles. And the front door was headed by a cute little “painting gnome.”
We put some of her dollhouse furniture in it. She put tomatoes in it “for dinner,” she said. And we tucked the little gnome house into the corner of our back porch, to protect it from the rain, since we don’t have any trees around.
(Side note: That little garden gnome in the picture above is actually a weird little terracotta gnome I got at Ikea ages ago. It came plain, but I painted to look like the gnomes from the Gnome Book. The book Gnomes was a favorite of mine as a kid. It explained gnomes in a realistic way, and fit them into our world as if they WERE real.)
Later, that evening, I threw out the little tomatoes, partly to see if she’d notice, and partly so our little food-hungry dog wouldn’t tear the gnome house up trying to get to them. It all reminded me a little of the Dinovember post that was going around a while back.
When she saw them this afternoon, she was excited. And I was excited for her. “GNOMES! I didn’t know we could really have GNOMES!” But honestly, I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe it. I suspect she’s enjoying just playing along…
And I’m not sure if I want to run with it, or just sort of let her in on the fun of pretending….
I don’t want to totally LIE to our kid—she’s always known us to be able to give her straight answers on nearly any topic imaginable. But I don’t want to rob her of that magical fun stuff that makes up being a kid. Her world hasn’t been completely defined by reality yet—for all she knows, there ARE such things as horses with wings or giants. Why not gnomes? After all, we’re all free to believe what we want, right?