Sometimes, Truth Needs to Take the Back Seat--Especially in a Sled

Times Staff Writer : Sarah Eden is a pseudonym used by the writer just in case her son really does believe in Santa

My son recently had two baby teeth pulled and when it came time to put them under his pillow for the tooth fairy, I asked, "Do you want the tooth fairy to take the teeth or leave them here?"

"I want to save them," he said.

Before, we had always left a note instructing the tooth fairy to please leave the tooth behind after delivering the surprise--a modest amount of money that has reflected cost-of-living increases over the years. This time, there was no mention of a note. We both knew there was no need for one, but we both chose to leave open the possibility that the tooth fairy is all-knowing and therefore doesn't need such explicit direction.

Now, as the time for Santa Claus' next visit approaches, I find myself wondering whether I should have pushed that conversation a little further, just in case my son was ready to let go of the tooth fairy's magic--as well as the Santa Claus myth--but didn't know how.

He has held onto these childhood fantasies right up to the brink of puberty. He's a bright, secure 11-year-old who makes his own lunch and does his own laundry. And he knows how to appeal to my sense of reason to get his way.

I had no idea the innocence that is wrapped up in his belief in Santa Claus would last so long. If it is, indeed, a sign of innocence.

Instead, it may well be that he has acknowledged the truth about Santa among his peers but fears that admitting it at home would abruptly end Santa's generosity with gifts.

It wouldn't, of course. But he doesn't know that.

I probably wouldn't be concerned about this at all if I didn't keep having visions of my son accepting the truth about Santa Claus at about the same time he becomes eligible to vote. The child-rearing manuals address such rites of passage as weaning and toilet training in great detail, but nowhere have I found instructions on the appropriate time--or way--for the Santa Claus charade to end.

However, I put away the how-to-parent books and started listening to my instincts long ago, and now my instincts are telling me I should do nothing to hurry my child through this compulsory step toward the stark realism of adulthood. I didn't hurry him through toilet training, and he got there--finally, at age 3, when the preschool teacher told him he no longer had a choice--and I'm sure he'll take this step, too, in his own good time.

It's not just the gifts that are at stake for him. I'm sure, under the surface, he's trying to hang onto the last vestiges of boyhood as his body begins to let him know that the scary world of adolescence is just around the corner.

I see other signs that he is lingering in a shadow land between boyhood and adolescence. Although he is nearly as tall as I am and just 10 pounds lighter, he still tries to get me to pick him up and still wants to play the tumbling, tickling, roughhousing games that started when he was a toddler. I tell him I can no longer play those games without the risk of serious injury, and he tries to win me over with a bear hug that makes my ribs crack.

At the same time, he has become so independent that he has no time for my after-school hello calls from the office--"Hi, Mom, bye"--and frequently doesn't return from his outings to friends' homes until dinner time.

The little boy in him is almost gone. Except that he still wants to be tucked in every night. Still wants to play those little-boy games. And still believes--or wants me to think he believes--in Santa Claus.

What if he is just trying to protect his commercial interests? Before too long, peer pressure--and a desire to assert his independence in new ways--will outweigh greed and he'll fess up.

Letting him get away with his own Santa Claus charade is far less harmful than robbing him of a piece of childhood fantasy that he still apparently needs.

My disappointment over learning the truth about Santa Claus--at an age much younger than my son--was leavened by my desire to keep up with my older sister. I also found some compensation in being allowed to stay up late and play Santa Claus for my two younger siblings.

My son, an only child, doesn't have that impetus. And I hope he won't ever be in as much of a rush to grow up as I was. Maybe his reluctance to shed childhood myths is a sign that he'll take his time and fully enjoy every stage of life.

That is, if his mother lets him.

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