Inoculating our kids against pedophiles like Larry Nassar

The news has been full of Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics who will spend the rest of his life in prison for sexually abusing girls and young women in his care. Much has been said about the harm he caused, and about the disheartening lack of response to those who previously tried to report him.

But Jackie Acho and Eva Basilion, who learned the Hanna Perkins Way when their children attended school here, offer important words for parents in their essay, “Inoculating Our Kids Against Pedophiles like Larry Nassar.”

Understanding upsetting behavior as communication

I had just brought Sammy (not his real name) in from the playground at the end of our school day. His mother was usually in the hallway by this time to greet him and take him home. On this day, since she wasn’t there yet, I suggested to Sammy that we could get his backpack from the cubby and wait for her together, sitting on chairs in the hallway.

The very moment we got his backpack, his mother arrived. They have a very loving relationship, so I was surprised when Sammy threw a fully physical and verbal tantrum.

Since teachers at Hanna Perkins view behavior as communication, I considered what Sammy might be telling us – and what might have happened in such a short time to bring on such a strong response.

As is true for many children, Sammy has difficulty with change. It occurred to me that he had been hit with several changes at once: outdoors to indoors, teacher care to mother care, mother waiting to us waiting, school work to leisure time, etc. Maybe this was just too much for him, so I considered which specific change to address first to help Sammy begin to get his tantrum under control.

The last change I had introduced was verbally preparing Sammy to wait for his mother on the chair in the hallway. She was visibly relieved when I explained this, and when I took Sammy to a hallway chair to enact that situation, he began to calm down.

I asked Sammy if he was ready to go, but I think I spoke too soon. He started screaming and thrashing on my lap. Since he takes comfort in the reliability of numbers, I told Sammy “We will count to 10 and then it is time to go home with Mommy.” I began. “One… two… three… four…” but Sammy shouted “It’s a rocket ship! It’s a rocket ship!” It was his way of saying he didn’t like this idea.

“OK,” I said, “we will count down from 10 to zero just like on a rocket ship.” Sammy listened quietly until I had gotten to number seven, at which point and he whimpered sweetly “100?”

“OK,” I tried again. “I will count from zero to 100 by tens, and then you will be ready to go home with Mommy until tomorrow.” With every multiple of 10 I named, I could feel Sammy relax a bit more. The numerical sequence was known to him, the ending value had been predetermined, and the expected action had been clearly stated.

During much of this time, Sammy’s mother had been listening, watching and waiting patiently a short distance away and down a short flight steps. Once I got to 100, I helped Sammy to his feet and his mother calmly approached. It was just as I had told Sammy it would be – us waiting for his mother on a chair in the hallway.

kirsten radivoyevitch

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

Sammy’s school day ended peacefully as he held his mother’s loving hand and calmly walked out of the school building like a big boy.

Being a teacher for young children with autism can be a challenge, both physically and mentally. But if we are willing to learn from them, they can show us a new way of thinking – one that challenges us to use our reasoning skills in a new way.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Classroom for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.

 

Helping children learn about death

Dear Grandmothers:

My 3-year-old son Billy’s hamster is looking sickly and I don’t know what to do if it dies. Should I run out and get another one so Billy won’t know what happened? I don’t want him to be sad and upset, so I want to be prepared for this situation.

Worried Mother

 

Dear Worried Mother:

This may sound odd, but you should be grateful Billy has this opportunity to experience death in a relatively simple way, rather than with the death of a loved person. It is a chance for him to see what death is, what is done with a dead body, and how we grieve the loss rather than ignore it.

This basic understanding of death can begin when a child is as young as 2 – when he notices dead things like insects or worms. If we use the word “dead” and explain that the bug will never move again because it is dead, we are helping him to have a concrete understanding of death in a situation that is not so emotionally charged as the death of a person he knows.

Knowing what is done with a dead body can be learned through the death of a pet. A child may want to hold the dead pet, even want to keep it. We must let him know that it will begin to smell, so we have to bury it. Putting Billy’s hamster in a box with a soft cloth around it and burying it in a protected spot in the back yard, with a flower planted on the grave, allows everyone to show their feelings of sadness at a death – even of a pet.

Allowing time to feel sad and miss his little furry companion without rushing out to buy a replacement gives Billy an opportunity to learn to cope with these feelings. Of course he misses his pet; of course it is sad when someone dies.

These are feelings he can bear – in fact, they are feelings he should be allowed to have, not denied by a well-meaning parent who wants him to be happy always. If a child is allowed to have these sad feelings and gradually learn to live with them, he builds emotional muscle.

We grandmothers certainly understand a parent’s wish to spare children any distress. We also know that it’s often because the parent doesn’t want to have those sad feelings – it’s just too hard – so they try to avoid them for the child and for themselves. But we are doing the child a disservice if we do not allow him to learn that he can bear even distressing feelings.

When there is a death in the family, or the family of a friend or classmate, Billy will at least have an idea of the answer to one of the inevitable questions: What is dead? The other questions that all children have are: Can it happen to me, and can it happen to you, Mommy and Daddy?

Here, you can be truthful but still reassure Billy that, “No, I won’t die for a long time; I’m healthy and I take care of myself. You’ll be a grown-up; I’ll be a grandmother for many years.”

Parents may think they should be totally truthful and acknowledge that, “Yes, I will die,” because, of course, they will. But to a child, that means it could happen tomorrow or next week, because children have such an undeveloped understanding of time.

What about spiritual answers to the question of death? Here again, children’s lack of development in the area of abstract thinking means the best thing is not to give religious explanations about death to children under the age of 7; until then, such explanations are only confusing and unhelpful.

Think of how confused a child is when he hears that Grammy’s in heaven. “Why wouldn’t she come down from there and play with me?” the child thinks. And imagine how scary it is for a child to hear that Grandpa “went to sleep.” How can he close his eyes at night when he imagines that death is what happens when you go to bed?

If the child hears others talking about heaven or God taking people away, you can answer, “Many people believe that. Many people believe other things too, and as you get older you will learn about them and will understand them better. Everybody has such a hard time understanding death. It’s hard to believe that someone is never coming back, so some people talk about heaven and god. But I like to remember the person who died and think about things we did with her when she was alive.”

So, Worried Mother, I know we’ve told you much more about young children and their understanding of death than you were asking in your question. But we couldn’t resist this opportunity to talk about such an important issue for all parents of young children.

Thank you for bringing it up. And good luck to you as you help Billy deal with the many issues of growing up and help him build the emotional muscle that he will need throughout his life – starting with the death of a pet.

 Image courtesy James Barker/Freedigitalphotos.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Benefits of play

Finally research has vindicated the mothers of half a century ago who routinely opened the back screen door and told their kids to go play, and not to bother coming back until the street lights came on or they heard the dinner bell, whichever came first.

Turns out these mothers were not being abusive and neglectful. The moms of the previous century didn’t know it, of course, but they were ensuring that their children developed a critical cognitive skill called “executive function.”

What kids did when their hours were not filled with TV, video games, and electronic toys (or yoga classes, soccer games, and tiny tot gymnastics) was regulate their own activities, mostly in improvised imaginative play.  They played “cops and robbers,” house,” or “school,” their own reality-based dramas. They also became the characters in fantasies involving queens and dragons, cowboys and horses, flying caped heroes and tall buildings, pirates and sinking ships. And as they did this, researchers are telling us now, they were developing “executive function,” the ability to self-regulate, the measurement of which turns out to be a better indicator of success in school than the results of an IQ test.

Kids with good self-regulation skills are better able to control their emotions, resist impulsive behavior, and become self-disciplined and self-controlled.

Times have changed

Those were different times, of course, and there’s no going back to them.  Kicking one’s kids out of the house is no longer considered good form.  And kids shooed outside into a modern day subdivision would probably quickly come home bored anyway, because there wouldn’t be any other kids out there for them to play with.  No one rings a dinner bell out the kitchen door to call the children home any more.  The kids are already home, bickering over which channel to watch, perhaps, or gobbling down a quick supper so they won’t be late for t-ball practice.

There are a couple of reasons for this shift.  First of all, we now seem to be afraid to permit our children to play unsupervised.  We are convinced that there are child molesters outside wanting to grab them, and accidents of all sorts waiting to happen to them, outdoors or in.  In vain do statisticians tell us that our children’s chances of being molested are no greater than they ever were, and that accidents are even more rare than previously. And secondly, we now feel that we have to give our child every possible opportunity to add to his repertoire of skills.  How can he become a musical prodigy if he doesn’t attend toddler Suzuki classes; how can he become a soccer star if he doesn’t join the team as soon as he can walk; how can he get into Harvard if his parents don’t very nearly bankrupt themselves sending him to the very best preschool?  If we don’t make sure he has these opportunities we will be putting him at a disadvantage compared to all the other children who are on all the right teams, in all the best classes.

So, how do we reconcile today’s anxious parents and the highly structured environment with our children’s need for unstructured, self-regulated play?

What to do

Let’s start with the givens: we’re not going to cancel all his classes and sports activities, and we’re not going to let him play totally unsupervised.  But we can certainly limit the number of teams and classes we sign him up for. Very young children don’t need anything extra outside of the occasional playdate, if that.  Toddlers might enjoy an hour or so per week at a class designed for kids their age where they could run and move freely, either to music or on gymnastics mats and 6-inch high balance beams, but no more.  Older preschoolers would probably benefit from attending, 3-5 mornings per week, a preschool where the bulk of the time is given over to free play.  A kindergartener might join a soccer team where cooperation and not competition is stressed, but only if he expressed interest.  The primary requirement for unsupervised play is uninterrupted stretches of time, and we could certainly cut back on all those classes and practices in order to give our children a little more of it.

No adults allowed

And while we’re not going to let our children play entirely unsupervised, we don’t need to be hovering over them, intruding into their play, either.  Even the youngest children are quite capable of entertaining, even educating, themselves.

We can stay nearby, assuring ourselves that we are keeping them safe, but at the same time go about our own business and not intervene, not offer solutions to problems until it becomes quite clear that such is needed.

We can limit TV to an hour a day, tops, and start buying our children uncomplicated toys and fewer of them.

We can encourage complex imaginative play by offering simple props and play ideas, but then withdraw so the children can plan their own scenarios and act them out.  Even the smallest toddler, given the opportunity, will start feeding the baby, or driving his car down the highway.  Older children will become family members, characters from stories, powerful heroes, animals in the jungle, royalty, all the while devising plotlines and scene changes worthy of the most skilled dramatist.

Imagine your children along with those of your more enlightened friends enjoying whole afternoons of such brain-enriching, creative play.  Then imagine your snoopy neighbor observing them and starting to brag about how her 3-year-old, who takes karate, chess and ballroom dancing, excels in all three. You needn’t be intimidated.  You can tell her that your 3-year-old, who appears to be feeding dryer lint to her teddy bear, is actually improving her “executive function.”  Your neighbor will surely be impressed. And you will be confident that your child is spending precious time at the activity that children need most and love best: playing independently and imaginatively.

Learning to apologize

bullying_Arvind Balaraman_freedigitalphotosJoel and Andrew, 4-year old friends, were playing with Lego when suddenly, Andrew howled, “I was just going to use that—it’s mine!”

Joel had snatched one of the pieces Andrew had in his pile beside him. When Andrew protested, Joel knocked down his building and Andrew began to cry. Joel looked at his mother wide-eyed.

What To Do?

“Oh, no,” thought Joel’s mother. Normally, he was not a selfish boy, but lately he’d done some very unkind things. What should she do this time – demand that he immediately tell Andrew he is sorry, make him have a time-out in his room, take away his Lego set for a week, tell him he couldn’t have anyone over to play until he could manage better?

On other occasions, she had tried one or more of these options but unhappy situations were still occurring. Besides, she was realizing that a parroted, “I’m sorry,” was just that – saying the words with no feeling behind them. When she had made him go to his room, there was usually a fight with Joel in tears, yelling and acting as though he were the victim. When he had to put a toy or game away for a period of time, it didn’t bother him very much because he would start playing with another toy and seem to forget about the stored one.

What could make a difference, make him want to change his behavior? Make him feel truly sorry when he had been unkind to someone?

Sincere and compassionate

How does a child get to the point of sincerely apologizing – in other words, with feeling and compassion?

Joel’s mother might begin by saying, “I know that Andrew is your friend and you like to play with him. When you take something he’s using and knock down his building, he feels bad and doesn’t want to play with you anymore.”

She could remind Joel, “Remember when you and Sue were playing and she wouldn’t let you have a turn? You felt picked on and angry”. Mother comforted and talked with him; he had stayed angry with Sue and called her “mean.”

She could ask him, “Is that how you want your friend to feel about you?” Joel would be better able to feel compassion when connecting Andrew’s feelings with ones he has experienced; he could be sensitive to the way he made Andrew feel. This will make his words, “I’m sorry,” much more healing for Andrew and for Joel himself.

Remorse and repair

Mother’s help in realizing another person’s bad feeling or hurt, and knowing that he caused it, will also lead the way to a feeling of remorse on Joel’s part. He will wish he hadn’t been so unkind. He will wish that Andrew wasn’t so angry with him and would still be his friend.

He will want to do something to make things better. He will also like the approval he gets from his mother and other adults when he does the kind thing, instead of causing disappointment and anger.

This can open the way for Mother to help him think about what he might do to repair what he has caused. In this case, it might be to gather the pieces of Lego that fell and, if Andrew wishes, help him re-build his building.

Sometimes repairing might mean doing some other act of kindness – drawing an “I’m sorry” picture, getting a tissue for a crying playmate, getting tape to repair something that was torn, etc.

Doing something kind will help restore Joel’s good feelings about himself instead of getting stuck in the misery of being the “bad guy.” He will feel better when he can sympathize with others and help them feel better, too.

The power to choose

Each time Joel is helped to realize how his actions have affected someone else or have turned a pleasant time into an unhappy one, he is forming convictions of what he wants for himself and how he wants to be thought of.

Does he want to be a bully who snatches whatever he wants, who destroys other people’s things, who spoils a nice time with a friend by his unkind behavior?

Or does he choose not to do those things he knows will hurt his playmate and end a fun playtime?

He will need help from the adults around him to think about what kind of boy he wants to be and to realize that only he can make that choice for himself. Four- and 5-year-olds are beginning to struggle with their developing consciences and the increasing capacity to empathize with others’ feelings.

They feel better when they learn their mistakes can be corrected, and then they are able to move on.

Image courtesy of Arvind-Balaraman_freedigitalphotos

How young children learn to protect themselves

Every day brings new reports of adults in some position of responsibility who take advantage of the trust that children place in them.

All of us have to worry about our children’s safety, and it’s easy to wonder what we should be doing to safeguard them from predators.

Parents of school-age children can talk about the importance of speaking up whenever anything feels uncomfortable. Parents of adolescents can talk even more directly with them about sexual assualt.

However, dealing with the issue of self-protection with preschool children is very different.

We want to caution parents against scaring or confusing very young children with lectures about not speaking to strangers, or protecting themselves against improper advances from anyone other than Mommy, Daddy or grandparents.

These messages can be utterly confusing to little children. It can be scary and upsetting, and can cause them to overreact in many ways.

For instance, they can become afraid of going to sleep, of the dark, of speaking to anyone. They can become overly excited and engage in mutual sexual play; or pretend to go looking for imaginary molesters, which shows that they are acting out what they are trying to understand.

Needing to protect oneself is a big responsibility that young children cannot possibly take on by themselves. We must be with them at all times, or place them in the care of family members or someone who has been checked out thoroughly and found to be completely trustworthy.

But there are things parents can do to help young children resist the advances of people who want to take advantage of them – though children need a long time to achieve mastery of the care and protection of their bodies.

They learn these skills by observing the things we parents do every day.

For example, they observe how we behave with strangers, who we talk to and who we avoid.

A young child goes from being totally cared for by his parents to wanting to do things for himself: feeding, washing, toileting, and dressing himself. And parents welcome this evidence that he is growing up and wants privacy and control over his own body.

Here is what Barbara Streeter, Education Director of the Hanna Perkins School, says about helping children protect themselves:

“What protects a child best is a sense of self-worth, an ability to know when he is being treated disrespectfully, and a sense that he has the right and ability to defend himself.”

To help a child develop those attributes and abilities, Streeter offers the following thoughts:

  • Always treat the child with respect, physically and emotionally.
  • Listen to and observe what he likes/dislikes and respond accordingly.
  • Protect her from intrusions of other adults – such as unwanted kisses, hugs, tickles, jokes, teases, insensitive doctors, salesmen, etc.
  • Support a child’s “no” to others when spoken or communicated non-verbally.
  • Assist a child in finding ways to defend himself when playmates and siblings are unkind in any way.
  • Show respect for – and support – a child’s need for privacy and control over what gets done to his body (eating, toileting, dressing, administering medications, etc.).
  • Avoid activities that make a child feel helpless (for example, adults overpowering a child by showing off their physical strength or engaging in excessive tickling).
  • Assist children in developing respect for “personal space”.
  • Carefully assess any person a child is being left with, and seriously consider any doubts you or the child might have.
  • Listen to what children have to say; let them know that we don’t automatically assume people in authority are right and they are wrong.

When children learn how to protect themselves, it’s not through our lectures or admonitions, but by observing the way their parents respect them and take care of them.

It’s a big job, but no one ever said being a parent was easy. We salute you and wish you well in doing that big job.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Taking time to learn from a student with autism

My student Sammy (not his real name) began looking up briefly from his desk in the classroom. At first these movements appeared to serve the purpose of relieving neck strain or perhaps eye strain from looking down at his table work. But I soon realized that he was catching quick looks at the clock on the wall.

I pointed to the clock and asked him, “Clock?” which prompted a longer gaze at the classroom fixture. I asked again, “Do you see the clock?” He replied “Yes” and then went back to his work.

While he worked, I fetched our teaching clock from the classroom cupboard and brought it to Sammy’s desk. It was a large clock with visible gears, and hands that move in relation with each other. He began experimenting with the clock, then handing it to me and asking me to make it display certain times. “Nine o’clock?” “Twelve o’clock?” “Five o’clock?” He became more and more intrigued with the idea that I could make it show any time he wanted, so I handed the controls over to him.

After a short time, Sammy looked up, asking “Math? Math?” I assumed he was ready to move on to the addition work we had been doing, but I was wrong. He got up from his chair and sought out a specific set of 12 blocks, featuring animals of sequential heights. A tiny ladybug is shown on the block labeled as 1, a tall giraffe is on the block labeled as 12, and other animals are shown in their relative heights on each of the blocks in between. We have used these blocks in the past to work on sequencing numbers, heights and lengths, but that is not what Sammy had in mind.

He began placing the blocks on the table in a manner that looked like a clock face, but he got discouraged after the sixth block. “Circle? Circle?” He put paper and a marker on the table in front of me and asked again, “Circle?”

I understood where this was going; I drew a large circle and handed it to Sammy with the marker. He wrote each of the clock-face numbers around the circle and then positioned the twelve animal blocks accordingly.

As he did this, Sammy sang and hummed quietly to himself. So I took the activity in a different direction by singing 12 consecutive tones of a major scale while bouncing my finger up the gradated blocks. He followed my lead and we played this way for several minutes.

Sammy then jumped up from his seat, saying “Ruler? Ruler?” He found the ruler and bounced his finger up and down the 12 inches, singing tones of a major scale. Watching this, I challenged myself to come up with a related activity to introduce the next day. I decided to bring in a calendar so we could connect the 12 inches with the 12 months of the year. The experience made me realize that several things in our lives come in sets of 12, or dozens, such as eggs, roses, and doughnuts.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch

Other than the fact that Sammy was born in 2012, his mother and I are not certain what significance the number 12 has to Sammy. It remains a mystery, but by being patient, curious and genuinely fond of Sammy, I was able to experience an alternative perspective, and the two of us were able to enjoy learning together.

Kirsten Radivoyevitch is a teacher in Hanna Perkins’ EPIC Classroom for children with autism spectrum disorders. Click here for more information about the EPIC program.

 

A collection of holiday wisdom: All the Grandmothers’ seasonal writings in one location

The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but all the excitement and traditions of the season can create stress in young children that grownups, in their own enthusiasm, can easily overlook.

Here is a collection of previously published articles by the Hanna Perkins Grandmothers that may help you see the holidays as they really look through a child’s eyes – so you can create the best kind of memories for the young people in your life.

  • Excitement vs. Fun In most circles excitement is a positive word – often considered synonymous with fun. A movie, a television program, even an activity for young children, is praised for being exciting. Using the common definition, the opposite of exciting is boring, and boring is ... Read more
  • The Santa Question This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually. The Tooth Fairy No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a ... Read more
  • Keeping holidays focused on the children It’s happening again. We’ve all seen it before: A mother rushing along the sidewalk or through the mall, pushing a stroller and holding the hand of a 3-year-old who is pasted along her thigh, half-walking half-trotting in an effort to keep up. The ... Read more
  • Handling holiday disappointments Grumpy Ballerina“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams over the PA system in Walmart – and as we pile gifts in our shopping cart we halfway believe it. The kid riding in the cart, eyeing the decorated artificial trees and ... Read more
  • The spirit of giving: How children’s gifts are recieved It was Christmas morning. As the family sat around the little tree, under which was a modest pile of wrapped gifts, Nina could not contain herself. She ran to the tree, pulled her gifts away from the others and distributed them; one for ... Read more
  • How little ones learn to love giving We Grandmothers are certainly aware that today’s families live in times of “Hurry Up” – that mothers and fathers both work and have to deal with malls filled with gifts of every shape and color. We recognize time is a precious commodity, so ... Read more
  • A holiday wish: Simple delight in your children What quality would we Grandmothers most ardently wish for you parents of young children in this final, bustling season of the year? Well OK, you didn’t ask, but we’re going to tell you anyway. Not patience, not insight, not mediation skills, not tolerance for ... Read more

Parenting tips on overly competitive behavior

As I love to watch non-professional sports, I have been a regular at area basketball games over the past few months. Thus I witnessed struggles by children and adolescents with overly competitive behavior.

Parents seated nearby shared my concerns and wondered if sports encourage aggressive outbursts in participants and if competition is healthy for children. One mother, alarmed by her son’s behavior, inquired, “How will I know if he needs professional help?”

Good question. And, at her request, I shall address it.

Perhaps the best way to think of this issue is in terms of normal childhood development. Toddlers begin to have competitive feelings with siblings, which often focus on the issue “Me first!”

Gradually these competitive feelings get expressed outside the family with peers in preschool. But by kindergarten and certainly 1st grade, children should be able to relate to age-mates as partners with feelings. Thus they are socially ready for group play. Competitive feelings still exist, but not in such a demanding, mean-spirited way.

By their nature, games are an arena for the deployment of competitive skills – some of an attacking and others of a defending nature. Governed by inflexible rules, participants must be able to tolerate frustration and control their aggression.

 As they play and compete, all children compare themselves to others to see where they fall on the achievement scale, priding themselves on their abilities and worrying about their shortcomings.

Eventually healthy children get on friendly terms with their strengths and weaknesses and gain both proficiency and pleasure from competitive games. They also develop an appreciation for their teammates’ skills and can play cooperatively without becoming overly excited or aggressive.

But some children suffer in silence, withdrawing from group play as they feel so inferior to their peers. Others show off their superiority – taunting and ridiculing those who cannot perform at their level. In both of these situations, children are telling adults, through their behavior, that they are in need of help.

Other indicators of a need for professional assistance include:

  • Overly aggressive behavior with a desire to hurt others
  • Inability to tolerate frustration leading to outbursts
  • Overly controlling behavior (ie. “ball hog”)
  • Endless complaints about unfairness and being mistreated
  • Repeatedly cheating
  • Inability to tolerate losing; desperate need to win
  • Showing off and always expressing “better than” feelings

For more Parenting Tips, visit www.westpsychotherapy.com.

Image courtesy of Naypong/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Santa Question

This is a controversial subject, so we’re going to work up to our main point gradually.

The Tooth Fairy

No parent that we’re aware of takes great pains to protect the true identity of the Tooth Fairy. Maybe that’s because by the time a child starts losing teeth – at about 6 – he’s already well aware that there’s no good reason for someone in a tutu with wings and a wand to go flitting from bedroom to bedroom gathering up the baby teeth from the world’s first-graders. What could she possibly do with them all?

Then to confirm his suspicions that some hoax is involved, you wake him up in the middle of the night feeling around under his pillow, or you fall asleep before he does and neglect to switch the lost tooth for a silver dollar until he reminds you. But he doesn’t complain; he’s happy for the extra cash and he enjoys the game.

The Easter Bunny

That a rabbit would hop about carrying a basket, hiding eggs and delivering jelly beans is a story so silly that a very small child could see through it. She loves the fantasy of it, however, as well as all that candy that she’s actually allowed to eat before breakfast on Easter morning.

But it wouldn’t ruin her day at all if she were to catch you hiding the eggs. She understands imaginative play full well and would know right away that you’re just pretending.

Superman and Wonder Woman

Children enjoy pretending they are these all-powerful characters, and we adults can easily understand why they would: Children are small and comparatively weak, while these superheroes are neither.

You let them wear bath towels as capes around their shoulders and fly about the house saving captive dolls and rescuing endangered teddy bears. You only intervene if the furniture seems threatened, or if the children appear to actually believe that they could safely leap out of windows.

But they don’t. They understand it’s all fantasy play and so do you.

Hannukah Charlie

For some reason he never did make it to the big time, maybe because he was just thought up as a Santa Claus substitute. Which brings us to …

Santa Claus

On the one hand there are those who, for religious, moral or psychological reasons, want him done away with:

He represents greed, they say, not the true spirit of Christmas; parents who demonstrate their love by making or buying elaborate gifts for their children should not give that overweight, bearded virtual stranger the credit. Parents should not tell lie after lie to their children about how he gets into their house even though they don’t have a fireplace – or why he appears in every store and on every street corner even though there’s only one of him. Or how he can manage to get to the millions of children in the world in only one night, etc. He doesn’t really exist and we should tell our children, so they say – and the earlier the better.

On the other hand are those parents who still half-believe in Santa themselves:

They tell their kids that Santa “sees them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake” so they’d better behave or Santa won’t leave them any presents. They start decorating the house with red-suited icons shortly after Halloween, insist that their kids visit a department store Santa and sit on his lap even if they scream in protest, and maintain the Santa myth until their kids are well into their teens.

Which way to lean on the issue of Santa is up to the individual family, of course. But our recommendation would be for moderation. The fun about believing in Santa is not lost when the pretend aspect of it is acknowledged. It’s probably a good idea not to frighten your children with Santa – either with his all-knowing ability to know if they ate all their peas or fed them to the dog; or with forcing your little one to sit on the lap of someone she never met and doesn’t care to. But go ahead and play the game.

Pretend along with your child that there really is a sleigh pulled with reindeer and a North Pole where elves create shiny toys. But you needn’t lie and connive to perpetuate the myth. Pretend that Santa brings gifts to your house on Christmas Eve, but if you’ve spent many hours building a dollhouse or saved up for months in order to buy that special bicycle, let your child know that those gifts are from you.

Speculate with your children about how Santa manages to do all those miraculous things, but don’t be afraid to explain that it’s all magical make-believe, pretend. Just like the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Wonder Woman and Superman are pretend. Very real, but still pretend. Who knows better than your child about pretending?

And don’t keep all the fun for yourself. Let him pretend to be Santa too.

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