“Mummy, am I fat?” says my daughter, all of seven, regarding herself in the bath. She doesn’t know it yet but body fascism is my wife’s darkest fear. The thought of a little girl worrying about weight evokes a response like that of a vampire facing a crucifix or Lady Gaga being asked to wear a twinset.
“No darling you’re not, and it’s a silly thing to worry about”, my wife replies with admirable (though bogus) insouciance. After a couple of minutes of intense debate the crisis is over and worries about the Messages Kids Get Today are, at least temporarily, averted.
“You promise you’re telling me the total, absolute truth Mum?”
“Of course sweetheart. I’ll never lie to you when you ask me for the truth. Cross my heart and soak my sleeve in this bubble bath”.
I slip out of the room, failing to hear the scream of a gigantic hostage to fortune being abducted right beside me.
Halfway down the stairs the other shoe drops.
“Mum, tell me the truth. Are the fairies really coming?”
My son is already demanding story-time and milk but I am paralysed, watching my wife trying to make her mouth move.
In the last few months the Tooth Fairy has been working overtime at our house. Though we sometimes worry about encouraging this too much (and about the hyperinflation which seems to have occurred in the market for teeth) we also can’t help but find it charming. As long ago as the 1970 the psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim pronounced fairies officially OK. Believing in magic apparently helps “master the psychological problems of growing up-overcoming narcissistic disappointments, oedipal dilemmas, sibling rivalries; becoming able to relinquish childhood dependencies; gaining a feeling of selfhood and of self-worth, and a sense of moral obligation”. Belief in magic also provides an interesting insight in to children’s’ cognitive development. And of course they grow out of it (at least up to a point). I’ve realised now though that the trouble with fairies is actually that I might not be ready for the moment when they get the push.
The question is still hanging. My wife (and this is like watching someone downing but beyond help) takes a huge gulp of air and opts for truth.
There was a lot more. Like a car accident, you don’t need to know all the details. Santa was still intact by the end of it but that was about all. She seemed sad but accepting. We were given strict instructions not to eat the Tuc biscuit left for the fairies on the kitchen table. In the morning, we heard feet hammering down the stairs, then back up again.
“Mum, Dad, it’s still there. The fairies aren’t real!” Followed, finally, by tears. And I don’t just mean from my daughter.
So what do you do when your child asks, really asks, for the truth? Perhaps close your eyes, clap, and wish with all your heart that they’d waited till they were a bit older.
John McGowan, 27th January 2011