My 9-Year-Old Still Believes In Imaginary Beings, And I Encourage It
You need to stop living this lie, I tell myself. It’s 11 p.m., and I’m squinting at the almost illegible words I’m attempting to write at fairy scale on a scrap of paper in my daughter’s room. “Keep playing the piano. You are very talented. And I love the clothes you made for me,” says the note. I finish it with a beautifully scrawled “E,” for Esmeralda—a name that came to me in a wine-induced creative frenzy one night—and place the note gently into the fairy house. Back in my bed, I catch my husband’s disapproving look as he switches off the light. He disapproves that I condone this charade, that I am almost insistent about its preservation.
In this season of childlike wonder and belief in all things magical, there’s a not-insignificant, and probably not entirely appropriate, list of imaginary beings my 9-year-old thinks are real: Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, leprechauns, Rudy, our resident Elf on the Shelf. To his credit, my husband has been mostly enthusiastic in assuming these roles of parent-as-mythical-being. He was the one who acted in an on-camera pantomime with his arm that created the overall effect of Santa “caught” on film reaching for a chocolate chip cookie. He’s the one who remembers to put money under pillows when baby teeth fall out. He, more than anyone, appreciated the possibilities for dramatic tension when my daughter lost a tooth a week before Christmas. (“Oh no! Fairy worlds collide! What happens if the Tooth Fairy meets the Elf on the Shelf in the night? Will there be a turf war?”)
But Esmeralda is a newcomer to the fable stable, untethered to any kind of religious belief or cultural tradition, and she comes at a time when the distance between a child and her juvenile beliefs should be growing instead of shrinking. My husband doesn’t recognize that Esmeralda has arrived because of, not despite, my daughter’s entry into the tween years.
Last summer, as her hormones began their onslaught, I feared I was morphing into that clueless mother who communicates with her daughter in what she thinks is a helpful way, only to send her child screaming and crying from the room while she’s left behind, dumbfounded, muttering, “What did I do wrong?” To mitigate this, I bought a mother/daughter journal, billed as a sort of joint diary that would facilitate objective, truthful and very loving dialogue without the misunderstandings and frayed nerves that often come with actual conversation. We tried it for a while—she writing to me one day, I to her the next.
Then one day, I bought a pair of shoes and my daughter suddenly became more interested in making something out of the shoebox they came in. “I want to make a fairy house,” she said, and of course I indulged her. All kids love making stuff out of boxes, and my offspring’s box obsession is a prime example of thousands of dollars that could have been saved if only we’d collected more cardboard instead of toys.
The mother/daughter journal lay closed on her dresser, but the shoebox took on amazing dimensions, with intricately cut out windows, rolled-Kleenex chairs, tiny shavings of chocolate on a Barbie dinner plate. My daughter cut out miniature craft-paper dresses and hung them on real mini wire hangers, and made a fairy bedspread out of a piece of scrap fabric. She left a note inside the box, asking the fairy to visit, to try on the clothes, to reveal her name. One night, just to prove to this child—this child standing on the threshold between infantile hope and teenage cynicism—that it’s OK to dream, Esmeralda wrote back, in tiny little fairy writing.
My husband might not be totally approving, but at least in terms of allowing kids to believe in mythical beings like Santa, there is some scientific evidence that agrees with my approach. Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a Huffington Post article last year that “this kind of thinking—engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible—is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the Internet.”
So I’m raising a dreamer, and I love that. But, academic semi-approval aside, my reasons for continuing the Esmeralda/daughter conversation are, ultimately, selfish. Their correspondence is frequent and heartfelt—Esmeralda is, after all, a benevolent fairy who has secret knowledge of all the things my daughter does well, and all the challenges she rises above as she enters what will probably be the most confounding phase of her life. My daughter is already detaching from me; sometimes, when I praise her, she bristles like my words are somehow false or vacuous. When Esmeralda tells her she plays piano beautifully, or did really well with her schoolwork, my daughter positively glows. She has never seen Esmeralda and has no evidence of her existence, but somehow the observations of this parallel-universe creature carry more weight—are, essentially, more real to my daughter than anything I tell her. If I can’t impart wisdom and praise directly to my child, let it be some messenger of mine, even if that messenger is a fairy alter-ego who’s had a couple glasses of Malbec.
Besides, we all know Esmeralda, like Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Elf on the Shelf, won’t be “real” in my daughter’s mind forever. Don’t think I haven’t been tempted to let Esmeralda shoulder more responsibilities as my daughter grows up. Her notes would be perfect for, say, sex-ed, or anti-drug messages, or persuading my daughter to ditch the friends I don’t approve of, or even for telling her that a particular shade of lipstick isn’t right for her—all the tried-and-true button pushers with which mothers have been maddening their daughters for millennia.
But Esmeralda will get outed, my daughter will get wise to the jig, and in the end, it will be her mother, plain and simple, talking to a more grown-up little girl, giving unwanted advice, begging her to be careful, and telling her she’s amazing—saying these things because I love her with a ferocity she will not comprehend until she has her own child, if such a time ever comes.
Someday when my daughter becomes that big kid with big problems, as the old truism goes, I’ll have to write her notes that are simply signed, “Mom.” Until then, I’ll keep the charade going. I’ll watch my child’s eyes light up with the pleasure of discovering a message from a secret friend, a friend who is never harried or impatient, never short-tempered or distracted, whose every waking moment is devoted to observing my daughter and extracting from each day all the good things to hold back up to her, like little flecks of magic.