My kids, now in 7th and 9th grade, are years past believing in Santa. But just days ago my oldest child stopped chewing mid-breakfast and looked up at me with concern. “You still signed some of the gifts from Santa this year, right?”
I hadn’t. Everything had gotten the same rushed treatment: the Sharpie scrawl of a name across wrapping paper. “Oh, um, not really, but Santa always stuffs the stockings!” I chirped, and she smiled. Traditions are important whether they’re rooted in belief or not.
This is a perplexing time of year for parents of older kids and younger teens. The holidays, with all their magic and wonderment, make us think hard about that line between childhood and adulthood. And then they shine a string of dazzling lights on the uncertainty of where your child sits in relation to that line.
The quintessential struggle of a middle school parent is that we rely on that line – that invisible, intangible, flexible line – to make many of our parenting decisions. Do we deliver the lunch left on the kitchen counter? Do we allow the cell phone to stay in the room overnight? Do we intervene when friends hurt feelings? We wonder and we wonder and then we weigh ”this is a lesson he needs to learn” against “he’s just a kid” until we stand paralyzed and hope if we ignore the question for a little longer it might go away.
Those daily struggles seem small compared to the year-end, heart-bursting questions of whether your older kid still believes, should still believe, can possibly hold on for one more year…
We wrestle with this probably because it all boils down to our hope that we’re doing enough to create happy childhood memories for a person whose childhood feels far too fleeting.
I have good news for you. Holiday magic doesn’t end when you discover Santa isn’t real. In my book, Middle School Makeover, I write “Little kids believe in fantasy magic like Santa, fairies, and dragons. Middle schoolers believe in real-world magic like justice, hope, and infinite possibility.”
Yes, there is a seismic shift in how kids experience magic once you’re done orchestrating it for them, but that doesn’t mean their world becomes less wonderful. In fact, it will probably become even better.
Consider this: In his book, Homesick and Happy, Dr. Michael Thompson tells of a “deceptively simple” question he asks when he speaks to crowds of parents, which he does frequently and to large crowds.
“What was the sweetest moment of your childhood?”
After giving the audience a moment to reflect, he then asks them to, “Please raise your hands if your parents were present when that sweetest memory took place.”
On average, 80% of adults report that adults were not there for their sweetest childhood memory.
It’s not for lack of trying. Now more than ever, parents try their hardest to manufacture magic. We Pinterest the heck out of food to delight young palates. We orchestrate elaborate Elf on the Shelf tableaus. We YouTube ourselves in our Christmas jammies. We arrange for extraordinary classroom parties with goody bags that seem more fit for Oscar Night than Two O-Clock on a Wednesday with Third Graders.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any or all of that. If it’s fun for you, that’s wonderful! But your efforts are probably not going to create a lasting sense of wonder for your child. Our greatest childhood memories most often are related to risk, independence and success. Watch the best holiday ad of the season, to see exactly what I mean.
I know it’s difficult, but try not to despair over a loss of childhood magic. Rejoice for all the good that’s yet to come! The secret to a wonderful (truly, full of wonder) childhood, is to let kids explore their place in the world and encourage them to make their mark in it, without too much interference from us.
Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You And Your Kid Experience The Middle School Years (Bibliomotion, 2014). She also created the social leadership curriculum, Athena’s Path™ & Hero’s Pursuit, used in schools across the country .
Her work has been featured by Parents.com, The Washington Post, A Mighty Girl, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, Fox News Good Day Carolinas, The Charlotte Today Show, and Huffington Post.