Imagination helps us survive childhood. I remember believing in angels, elves, ghosts, and zombies. I remember what it felt like when anything seemed possible — if not plausible. But my son’s persistent belief in fairies baffles me. I don’t understand where it comes from and what, if anything, I should make of it.
Though I’m not Jewish, my wife and I agreed to raise our children in that faith, so Santa Claus did not exist a priori (he and his brothers have always been gracious with their Christian cousins, but they know the truth). Same with the Easter Bunny. But fairies? I’m told they’re everywhere. Not only that, this information comes from a child who previously prompted us to construct a parental reading list including The Explosive Child. He was our wild card and our skeptic. Now, he’s a full on fantasist.
A few months after his second birthday, he asked if he could be a werewolf when he grew up. The beauty of a two-year-old is you never have to discuss probabilities or which universities have werewolf programs, so we told him it was a great idea. Why the hell not? And in the four years since he continued to pursue this goal, cultivating a persona that could only be described as “split.” Sudden violence. Sudden calm. Then he ceased paying attention to the moon.
He is our most literal child. For him, the world is to be deconstructed, or if looked at another way, destructed. He takes everything apart: pens, calculators, and the handlebars of his scooter. He has unscrewed the legs of living room chairs and twisted the heads and legs off his collection of superhero figures. He tears paper to examine its marrow. I’m not sure if he wants to understand how things work or if he wants a peek behind the curtain to confirm there is no trickery. The results are effectively the same.
He also dissects parental hypocrisy and exaggeration. When I griped about a mess he and his brothers made and described the room as being “torn apart” and my “having to put it back together,” he raged. “No! All you did was pick up three photo albums, fold two blankets, and pick up the pillows from the floor!.”
“It is an expression.” I said. But there was no sense arguing.
We worried about his transition into kindergarten last year, but none of his lycanthropic tendencies manifested. The structure of school brought out the best in him. His teachers adored him, and to our relief he sought their daily approval more than ours. And if they said fairies existed, he was going to believe them. Last Spring, when Fiona, the queen fairy, and her minions paid a visit to his classroom, his older brother told him plainly that it was his teacher pretending to be a fairy, but the kid didn’t care. There was fairy dust sprinkled in his cubby. He’d collected some in his backpack. He had evidence.
“Glitter,” scoffed our eldest.
“Then what about the note she left for us? Huh? Huh? Huh?” the little one said, getting close enough to bite. “Who wrote the note? Huh?”
“Your teacher, you idiot.”
As a father of three boys I am more referee than parent some of the time. So I was heartened when they chose to resolve this judiciously, and deferred the final decision to me, both exclaiming “Dad would you tell him!”
What was I supposed to say?
I am the first to admit to idiosyncrasies. My most recent Father’s Day present was an “Ancient Alien Theorist” t-shirt, and despite the lack of evidence I have a soft spot for Bigfoots. I want to believe in Chupacabras and the Mothman and extraterrestrial visitation. The world would be a bit more empty without crypto-critters. So I was sympathetic, but also concerned. I didn’t want to lie to the kid. I want to teach him to think expansively, but also straight.
So I neither confirmed nor denied.
The debate was rekindled this summer when the first grader -to- be lost his first tooth. He was more excited than a Christian kid on Christmas. After all he was on a first name basis with Fiona and a crew of fairies. Here was his chance to gather more evidence and put the debate to rest. My wife and I could have resolved the issue in iPhone fashion, with apps that superimpose an aura of light or an actual tooth fairy into a picture of your sleeping child, but that seemed excessive and mawkish if not cruel. So we opted for the traditional crumpled bills and a handwritten note from an “associate of Fiona, Fred.” My son was more gratified by the note than the three bucks. In the morning, he emerged, imagination still in tact, yelling “She came! She came! See! See!”
I was glad. We could all stand some make-believe in our lives. I don’t love misleading my child, but it’s beautiful to see a fantasy remain whole, undeconstructed for now.
Ken Malatesta has been teaching Middle School and High School writing for the past fifteen years. When he is not grading papers or chasing after his three sons, he is writing essays and trying to find the time to complete a memoir for young adults. Originally from Chicago, he now lives in Skokie, Illinois.