Talking Life, Death and Deities to Under 7s – oh sceptic, have you failed?

Recently, I talked about my son’s experience with the tooth fairy at a skeptics in the pub event.

Afterwards, in the question and maybe an answer session, I was asked whether, as a presumed sceptic and attempted rationalist, I felt uncomfortable or hypocritical keeping encouraging the tooth fairy legend. I don’t have a problem with the odd fairy tale or myth. I see no reason to constantly hit my son’s head with a mallet of reason after each reading of Rapunzel or The Dinosaur Pirates. Children’s minds are being shaped for the possibility of reasonableness, but I don’t see any reason not to allow some pretend. There will come a time, oddly coinciding with the last pre-molar being placed under the pillow, when he may well decide it was all nonsense, but nonsense that turned near worthless enamel into Lego and comics. If I just told him, “there is no tooth fairy, your mother and I will merely take your teeth in exchange for cash like an infant Cash for Gold learning slope”, I don’t think the lesson learnt is as good as the moment his questioning unearths a fabrication designed for childhood fun. 

He also believes in Santa too, infuriating, as I would prefer he knew it was my blinking money that went on those presents, not some benevolent, eternal, Arctic deer hustler. 

Most parents spend their lives thinking, “am I bringing up my children correctly? What have I done that will have adulthood repercussions?” 

I was recently told off by a psychologist friend who declared that I was, oh and how this will shock you, overly discursive with my son. What a surpris. Ahgaine that I talk and analyse things too much, a career advantage that should be put on hold around the Playmobil. 

Faith and religion is a tricky area. I can’t don the mantle of tooth fairy and Santa and outrightly dismiss a deity each time it comes up. Maybe if I rolled tooth fairy and Santa and Yahweh into one being, then he would shrug all three off at the same time. Maybe I can say that is what the holy trinity is. 

Though he doesn’t attend a religious school, the Biblical tales are told of God and Heaven and, I wasn’t so pleased with this, tales of the body and blood of Jesus being wafer and wine. The Nativity play (despite what you might hear) occurs each year. Again, i see no reason to go into too much detail just as I didn’t feel I needn’t to tell him that soft toys do not get involved in repair work when unobserved after I took him to see Bagpuss. 

When he asks me of God, I explain that people believe different things. I have told him I don’t believe there is one, but don’t just trust me. Later, he told me not to worry, that though he believed in God, he also believed in the big bang. He is Francis Collins in the making. 

When we were looking at the Open University Tree of Life poster, he questioned why Darwin illustrated man, as he wasn’t the first man. There is a confusion between ideas of evolution and Bible stories. I am glad to say he laughs when he sees animations where dinosaurs and humans are side by side. “Now that isn’t right is it.”

And I didn’t feel like an oppressive atheist dad when I told him that Adam and Eve is just a story, a way of illustrating life on earth, but not true. We did some hairy apes turning into hairless man ape dances, I am sure Thomas Huxley did similar as he took his children “up the wooden hill to bedfordshire.”

There is an age where death first worries you, that time that you start to imagine yourself parentless and alone. This, too, I do not know the best way to deal with. i am sure there are many conflicting books that deal with it in the overburdened self-help sections. 

You find yourself saying, “it won’t be for ages. Let’s have fun now and stop thinking about it.” How deeply can you go into it when they are 5 or 6. With talk of heaven, again I do not flinch at saying, “no one knows, so best to pack in as much as we can while we are definitely here”. I have started to sow the seeds (uh oh, I have hit parable mode) of the idea that we made of atoms, and that all the atoms that make us have made so many other things and will go onto make so many other things while there is still this universe about. We are bits of apple tree, molten larva, pulsar, caterpillar cocoon, Dodo beak, Trilobite feeler, glacier, and so much more, though that can make up the strangest Frankenstein monster in the imagination. 

It’s all just stories now, stories trying to convey ideas that are confusing and frightening and exciting. I have been asked on more than one occasion if I worry if my son grows up to be religious. Hah, I don’t think I’d care,  but if he grew up to be a dogmatist and venal bigot, then I really know my discursive ways would have something to answer for. 

I am off on tour – from Sheffield to Edinburgh, Chorley to Norwich, Huddersfield to Birmingham, and more than likely a town near you. Details HERE


(if your town isn’t on the current list, tell me, I love trains and dislike laziness)

I talked a great deal more about the recycling delight of all the atoms that make us in this DVD HERE


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27 Responses to Talking Life, Death and Deities to Under 7s – oh sceptic, have you failed?

  1. I always promised myself that as soon as my daughter started asking questions about the tooth fairy (and other childhood lies) I would be brutely honest with her. After all, if she’s asking, then doubt had already sullied her innocent mind. The day came, I caved to societal pressure and answered “what do you think?”. Her response—”I do believe in the tooth fairy… but I believe it’s you”.

  2. Ben says:

    My opinion carries no special weight but I think there’s nothing wrong with telling stories to children. The danger comes when you shut down any questioning of those stories

  3. Roger Wood says:

    I solved this kind of problem by shoving my son in Southwell minster choir. In exchange for free music lessons and him getting paid, they preached the bible at him. It took him about two weeks to work out that most of what they were saying was a load of rubbish and that he doesn’t believe in God. (I told him Santa wasn’t real from birth. I didn’t want to be telling him not to take sweeties off strangers all year, and then to turn around and say it was ok if a beardy old man broke in to the house and gave him presents – and the whole leaving gold coins in stockings would have just led to a discussion about prostitution which I didn’t think was an appropriate topic for a child who couldn’t walk yet)

  4. Gerry Kinsella says:

    The question is, is it better for the brain to be brought up believing and then discover for yourself that it’s all made up. Or is it better to be told the truth from the get go. I really don’t know but I think my religious upbringing enriched my mind. When you REALLY believe something whilst growing up it digs in deeper than knowing they’re just stories. I feel I went deeper in my mind with these myths because I ‘knew’ them to be true. Thinking of Jesus as real made me ask deep moral questions of myself and I don’t think I would have if mum and dad had told me the truth. But then again, and I think this is a real problem, when I went to uni and studied Darwin one of my reactions was to lessen my moral standards. We are animals anything goes. I grew up and went back to these morals, be the best person you can basically. But I still think my young self raised the bar because he believed.

  5. It is a beautiful thing to watch a child weigh the consequences of belief vs. non belief of the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. Then the wonderful moment comes when they confront you over the story and you confirm that their suspicions are correct. That is a valuable life lesson.

    However, at the same time she was figuring out for herself that Santa isn’t real, my daughter was getting schooled by her peers about Jesus and god. I keep my opinions about religion short and honest with my kids, but this one is starting to get a bit of religion. After visits with friends she will come home and tell me with great passion that she believes in god. One fairy tale has been exchanged for another. I expect that once the novelty wears off she’ll realize these stories don’t make any sense either and she’ll have another wonderful moment.

  6. beckyboooo says:

    We bought our daughter Dawkin’s Magic of Reality book for Christmas and told her it was from Father Christmas. I see no problem with keeping a young mind open to childhood magic. It doesn’t last long enough. But when faced with questions of heaven/hell/god I do the “different people believe different things”. I wish religions did the same thing. Then maybe other children wouldn’t be telling my daughter that she is going to hell for not being Christian.

  7. Margaret Mcnaughton says:

    You over rate your influence.
    He isn’t stupid and will make up his own mind in due course as you did.

  8. nick donaghey says:

    Is molten larva an overcooked caterpillar cocoon? Sorry – couldn’t resist ;0 Good piece – plenty of time for hard fact – best lesson now is teaching a thirst for knowledge. I play the “question game” with my son – he gets to ask me any question that pops into his head – it can be quite taxing for both of us and a lot of leftfield fun

  9. latambourine says:

    (@LaTambourine) i am just thinking now that was discussing death w/ 4 year old today and I actually was telling her that our dead bodies (the soft bits) rot away and get eaten by and dissolved into various things (she did ask). I don’t think she asked again about it later so hopefully I haven’t scarred her entire childhood, although as I was explaining this I started to try and turn it into the more attractive “and then we all turn into other living things and other things on the earth” etc etc nicer explanation, but I think the subject got changed b4 I got to do that. We do do Santa and the reindeer sparkle dust in the garden etc (neither of mine have reached tooth fairy stage yet), 4yo knows we haven’t got a chimney and that all the doors in the house are locked, I feel confident it won’t take her long to work it all out…

  10. Ann Sheppard says:

    I remember the day my 6yr old daughter found me recycling the cardboard boxes from her easter eggs – we used to take the eggs out of the boxes and hide them in the garden for her and her brother to find , from the ‘easter bunny’. She was deeply upset to see that the eggs were bought from a shop. Later that day as we walked through the local park , still planting eggs, I saw her hide a few of her own eggs for her brother to find and making a big deal about the easter bunny. I was very touched by that, her collusion in a harmless deception, and she suddenly seemed wise and sophisticated beyond her years. Through childhood she was subject to indoctrination from church going grandparents and her atheist parents and is now, I’m relieved to say, a rational atheist who still insists on leaving carrots, mince pies, whisky etc by the fireplace on christmas eve 🙂

  11. nella503 says:

    My daughter aged seven, asked me if I believed in God. As you did, I said no, not personally but many people do etc, she then said with a little waiver in her voice “but the tooth fairy, Santa and the Easter bunny are real though, aren’t they? ” Her eyes were pleading with me to say yes and after seconds of a brief internal ethical dilemma, I reassured her that, yes, of course they are!! She still believes in them now aged 9. I did try to tell her last year that the Easter bunny was not real but she looked at me and said “Mummy, you are wrong, I know that he is real” I won’t try again!!

  12. pathguide1 says:

    our children will always keep asking and seeking, unfortunately with this modern world we shouldn’t worry much about fairy soon they are 3-4 years old all the modern technology is ruining any dream and imagination, and for some it’s a bless that it’s showing the truth.
    whatsupp fb,
    so no worries…the truth became more brutal anyhow and clear

  13. nikkiharvey says:

    I think letting children decide for themselves is the best way about it. Yet you can’t break down all stories and explain how they are wrong. Stories are needed to feed the imagination. But let them work out for themselves what’s real and what’s not. When you say you don’t believe something but don’t just trust what you’ve said, it gives the opportunity for the child to explore different viewpoints and become their own person. Good post and congrats on being freshly pressed 🙂

  14. I like this approach o lot. As a recent revert, I am telling the kids in my world, as they come of age, the tall these fables, both secular and religious, are little more than either fun things to pretend on, or simply used to illustrate points about life itself. I am currently at odds with many adults in my family who think I am corrupting them. It is so refreshing to read the thoughts of other like-minded people when it comes to NOT wanting to deceive kids, and, more importantly, teaching them critical thinking and reason (when they’re old enough to understand) so they can decide for themselves what Is true and what is BS. Thank you.

  15. It’s the magic and the sharing and the mystery and the joy of learning the truth–so you can plan, and play, and pretend for and with someone else. That’s how we do it. My oldest came through it as a rite of passage, delighted to stay up late with Mom and Grandmas, setting up wonder for his little brother. When the littlest gets old enough, he’ll have his rite of passage too: planning for his cousins.

  16. rmaher28 says:

    My son at 6 asked about Santa, I replied as most parents do “what do you think?” His reponse “I believe there was a santa a long time ago, now that he is dead and its just the spirit of santa that we believe in”. My reply was okay if that’s what you believe. It was not untill age 9 that he then asked again and this time clearly pointed the finger at me for the presents under the tree. At age 11 he says there is no god just science …. yet believes in magic 🙂

  17. arkansasrose says:

    My mother never taught me and my siblings about Santa, the tooth fairy, easter bunny and what-have-you. I didn’t have a horrible childhood and I don’t believe I’m scarred as an adult – any scarring was accomplished through my own stupidity. If I had a child I wouldn’t teach them about it either. I don’t see the point. I suppose I go by the “If you lie about the little things, I can’t trust you with the big things” I don’t agree with teaching them to our children, however, I don’t look down on those who do.

    She did teach us about God and made it clear she firmly believes it’s true. We were encouraged to make up our own mind once we were old enough to question and seek answers. Each of us have made different decisions on our beliefs.

  18. haridasgowra says:

    interesting….good one.
    Nice to share with us…….

  19. We often think children are stupid by the type of silly books we give them to read, telling that children come from heaven and when there is death in the family they are told the fellow has gone to heaven. The age of reasoning is significantly reduced. Children are having a laugh now when parents lie to them about how a baby got into mum’s belly. In the Igbo tribe of eastern Nigeria, we do not believe in the tooth fairy. We tie the tooth and throw it on a thatched roof and tell the child that a red head lizard would be coming to take the tooth away for replacement. That’s more like a fairy lizard I guess.

  20. beautiful…
    I really like the way you write…keep going… visit mine… .. comments will be welcomed..

  21. awax1217 says:

    I am a coward and leave telling these truths to my wife. I stay away from topics where I find doubt even in myself. I avoid the “I do not know” syndrome.

  22. Fairy tales are invaluable. They sow seeds of wisdom at a young age in ways that are seemingly effective for youngsters. They also promote imagination and creativity. Moreover, they promote the thought that not all things which exist are visible/understandable by man. That is priceless.

  23. Prometheus says:

    A very good article I must say. It’s interesting how stories or even fairy tales manifest the heroic archetypes in our lives. Kids love fairytales, at least some of them, while adults love to see the fairytales in the movies (a.k.a. James Bond). They’ve gotto have some kind of belief while growing up and I’m not particulary talking about God, but a belief that they could hang on to. Rationalism is good and as Einstein said it would only take us from A to B while imagination can take us to anywhere. Thank you for this sincere piece 🙂

  24. milindlokde says:

    We should not force our beliefs on our children, we may be wrong ourselves…

    My 7yr daughter once asked me why is Mars there (in universe) when no one (aliens) lives on it?
    I know how it is there, but I am not sure why Mars exists…
    More similar questions she asked since were –
    # Will you grow up to the sky, when I grow up?
    # I want to become a women when I grow up and not a man..
    # Will you grow small when I grow up?

    We should let there imagination work and not interfere with our occasional false reasoning..

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