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Three years old is a great age. Our son is now old enough to understand almost any story we tell him — and young enough to believe them all! It’s such a magical time. All year long our days are filled with invisible animals and fairies doing silly, wonderful things in our home.

So Santa and his reindeers fit right in.

 The capacity to imagine and believe in magic is like a muscle or a talent that needs nurturing when children are young. It is not, as some parents fear, lying. Instead, make-believe is linked to creativity and hope. Ultimately these are the tools our children will need in their quest for understanding as they construct their sense of self, their world-views and hopefully a healthy relationship with the unknown.

As Christmas approaches, we tell the Santa stories with all the magic and details we enjoyed as kids. We try to play up the joy of giving and downplay the consumer side. Our son loves the story of Rudolf, and I think it has a great message: what makes you weird also makes you special.

I also show him that we can all be Santa’s helpers and try to do good. For example, we went up and down our street with neighbours carolling earlier this week to collect food for the food bank. I told our son that Santa asked us to help by doing this — he is now so excited to keep being a helper for Santa.

In our home we are always making things up, and I don’t think of it as lying but enchanting daily life. Not only do these make-believe stories make life fun, frankly they are also an invaluable parental productivity tool. Every morning Forest races down the stairs to scare imaginary bunnies and monkeys away from our kitchen so they won’t eat his breakfast. If he gets there and they have disappeared he’s done his job. It gets him out of bed, it motivates him to eat his breakfast, and it gives us a fun ritual for the morning.  I hope as he gets older rather than resent these ‘lies’ he will instead remember all the fun and togetherness we shared while enacting these stories.

Stories and fiction aren’t just for kids.  Us grown-ups are always telling stories — even the ones we say are the ‘truth’ are often tinged with fiction. As our kids grow up they will learn to distinguish all these stories in their own way, and decide what to believe and what to pass on to their kids. This kind of play and storytelling, in addition to promoting a sense of awe in life, helps develop abstract conceptual abilities. Ultimately these stories become metaphors that aren’t the Truth, but help provide a framework for better making sense of the world.

As Forest gets older and asks questions, I’ll do what my parents (an artist and a scientist) did.  They let me construct my own meaning and sense of ‘truth’ around fantastical topics.  If I ever asked them direct questions about the existence of certain fictional figures they would never answer directly – they’d just smile and wink at me and say something like “No one quite knows for sure!”

I’m grateful all these years later that they left some room for wonder for me. Because I was raised by an artist and a scientist I was surrounded by creativity, but also had the scientific method ingrained at an early age. Because they left my sense of wonder and magic untamed as a child I am still able to get caught up in the make-believe wonder that so enchants my three-year-old today.  It’s why I can be a creative thinker and remain an optimist, while still being quite critical too.  Most of all, it’s how I’ve created my own sense of spirituality not based on a doctrine, but arising from a sense of awe and gratitude about creation.

Sometimes magical stories can teach us to imagine and hope, and then as we test them against ‘reality’ we can learn to be comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty.  The biggest lie would be to teach our children that there is one shared truth about the world, and that everything can be explained. It can’t. Having a sense of awe and openness to some of the mystery of life is an amazing skill to foster in children.

A little magic in their youth may help them be more engaged with the complexities of reality as they grow up, and empower them to be open-minded and innovative.  Yes, some children may resent stories they’ve been told when they learn the ‘truth,’ but being there for them and helping them work through those feelings is an important life lesson all kids need to learn at some point. Better to do it with someone who cares deeply about them and can help them cope with the tensions between real and make-believe. It might not always be easy – but parenting rarely is.

That’s why it’s good to enjoy and share the magic whenever and however you can! Gotta go, I think I hear reindeer on the roof.

Carly Stasko is a self-titled Imagitator, one who agitates imagination. Find more of Carly’s How To Raise a Parent pieces here.

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