The approach of Easter reminds me of the question I am often asked: should tell young children about the Easter Bunny, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, or fairy tales in general. Parents tell me that they are concerned because these characters are only imaginary and not true. What these parents fear is that when their children get older, and discover that these stories are not true, that they will think that their parents have lied to them. While such parental concern is entirely understandable, it is an adult not a child’s perspective. To appreciate the child’s perspective we have to recall a little bit about child development.
Young children think differently than we do. It is not a wrong way of thinking, just different. With age and mental development, children will themselves overcome their earlier modes of thought. Young children are animistic; they attribute life to non-living things. That is why the swaying branch of a tree may frighten them. Likewise, young children believe that when two things happen together one is the cause of the other. A child might believe, for example, if the sun appears after a shade is raised, that raising the shade made the sun rise. In addition, young children believe that everything has a purpose. If you ask a young child to define a word like apple, he or she is likely to say that it is something “to eat.”
So the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and fairy tale characters are in keeping with the ways in which young children think. For this reason young children really appreciate this type of fantasy. These characters and stories are not only in keeping with their mode of thought, but they also give the child the sense that the adults, to whom they are attached, appreciate their perspective. So telling young children about the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus, or reading fairy tales like The Three Little Bears, is more likely to bond them to parents than to alienate them.
What parents need to appreciate is that as children mature they use their earlier beliefs in animism, causation by association and in everything having a purpose, as markers of their growing maturity. I recall visiting an elementary school at this time of year and seeing a second grader pinning up paper cut outs of the Easter Bunny and baskets of colored eggs. He noticed me watching him and said to me quite proudly, “I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny any longer.” So children, do not really resent us for having told them about fantasy characters. Actually, the reverse is more likely to be true. Our children will be thankful that we gave them this means of marking their progress along life’s way.
By Professor David Elkind