Jessica’s tooth came out when her parents were away. Her babysitting grandparents weren’t sure about standard family procedure. In the event the Tooth Fairy performed her traditional role – and is now wondering what to do with the tooth.
Why are traditions like this so popular? I can’t help contrasting the Tooth Fairy’s activities with the many harangues I have been subjected to from biblical literalists insisting that every text must be either the truth or a lie. From their perspective, presumably, wherever the Tooth Fairy is at work parents are deceiving their children with inexcusable lies.
Yet the biblical literalists are wrong. Children the world over are entertained by fictions about non-existent people and talking animals. Children easily understand the difference between fiction and real life. Good children’s stories, like good biblical texts, describe what life is like quite independently of whether the events actually happened.
Fictional stories can have a power of their own while still being fictions. I remember being caught off guard once when I was in my first curacy and still new at preaching. At the end of a sermon addressed to adults I told a story that ended with a person in a dilemma, forced to make a difficult decision. The point of the sermon was to acknowledge the dilemma. After the service a group of adults, much older than me, demanded to know what the person in the story ended up doing. They knew it was just a story, but they couldn’t cope with not knowing the outcome. I had to make up an extra ending on the spot, just to pacify them. I have forgotten what the story was, but I haven’t forgotten how badly I had misjudged the power of stories.
On the other hand there are dangers. In the spectrum that goes from Tooth Fairy through Father Christmas, guardian angels and Christ to God, parents tell children stories about invisible agents. Later, the children will learn that some or all of the stories were just fictions to amuse the young. Will they then disbelieve all of them?
Much will depend on how the parents distinguish between reality and fiction. Young children depend on adults to explain that rabbits don’t really talk, despite what the story books say. As long as the parents help their children distinguish between reality and the far reaches of the imagination, there is no need for any harm to be done.
Problems arise when parents are driven by their own agendas. Sometimes they are determined to keep their children in a world of childish fantasy when the children themselves are ready to move out of it. By being too emphatic about the reality of some non-existent beings, parents can reveal themselves to be liars – in the long run if not immediately.
Why does this happen? Perhaps because the parents didn’t have enough of a childhood of their own. However I wonder whether there is an additional reason, deeply entrenched in modern secular society. In the Middle Ages there was no need for stories designed specifically for children. People of all ages believed in a rich enchanted world, full of angels, demons and countless other invisible beings. All sorts of exciting events could be thought credible. Now, that world has been emptied out. Educated adults have replaced those invisible agents with germs, viruses, radio waves and other impersonal processes. Because they are impersonal we cannot relate to them. Relationships are as important as ever, but there are fewer relationships to be had.
This leaves me wondering whether there is a correlation between the emptier reductionist world of secular science and a desire by some parents to shield their children from it for as long as possible. It could indicate an underlying unease: the truth about reality as shown by secular science feels bare and unpleasant, so in effect they prefer to spare their children from the horrible truth for as long as possible.
If this is indeed what is happening, it is far from self-evident that it is the right thing to do. Does it add up to deliberately deceiving children? But then, if the ultimate truth about reality really is that unpleasant, how should we break the news to our children?
I can’t answer this question, because I don’t believe reality is that empty. I don’t think we are surrounded by invisible demons and fairies, but I do think we are surrounded by God and can relate to God in countless different ways. In my world the Tooth Fairy performs a role similar to Little Red Riding Hood and the Enormous Crocodile: it’s a matter not of shielding children from reality but letting stories inspire the imagination. As well as true facts about the way things are, the imagination is important too, so that we may explore the way things might be.