My child is questioning Santa's existence.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 10 2009 7:05 AM

How To Handle a Santa Skeptic

My ex told our son there's no St. Nick, but I don't want to ruin his childhood. What do I say?

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Dear Prudence,
My child's father and I split up when I was five months pregnant, and I've raised our 8-year-old son by myself. I've always told him that Santa Claus exists. For the past two years, he's been writing a wish list to Santa and putting it in the mail. Last year, his father told him that Santa does not exist, that it's a lie parents tell their children, and that parents buy presents and tell the kids they're from Santa. Two nights ago, my son asked me, "Mommy, does Santa really exist?" to which I replied, "What do you believe?" He said, "Papa told me Santa doesn't exist, and you tell me Santa does. I think he does, but I don't know." I always knew that I would have to tell my son the truth about Santa, but I don't want him to think that I've lied to him all these years. How do I tell my son that Santa doesn't exist without losing his trust? And what's there to live for when you don't believe in all the things that make a moment special?

—Believing 

Dear Believing,
Gee, thanks, Dad. Maybe he also threw in that when he realized he was going to have a child, he ran for the hills and cursed himself for not using a condom—that's the truth, too. It's good your son has a relationship with his father, but it would have been nice if his father, before he unilaterally shot down Santa's sleigh, had discussed this with you first. After all, the boy already knows that when someone says, "Mommies and daddies love each other," that isn't necessarily true, either. But don't worry about being caught out in a lie. Telling your children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy is not lying—it's sprinkling a little magic dust on childhood. While people have funny, even poignant stories about realizing none of it is true, I've never heard anyone rail against those elementary-school years of deceit. But at 8 years old, your son is coming to the end of his belief that these figures are real. You've done a good job handling this, so continue to take your cues from him. If he really seems to want the truth, then tell him. If he's ambivalent, you can say you're not going to disagree with his father, but it would still be fun to believe in Santa Claus again this year. When she was 8 years old in 1897, Virginia O'Hanlon wrote to the New York Sun, posing the same question as your son. The editorial in response, "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," is one of the most famous ever written, and I'll let the author, Francis P. Church, have the last words: "Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! ... There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence."

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I work in a small office where everyone gets along well. I am in my early 20s, by far the youngest employee and the only single one. I pretty much live paycheck to paycheck. Every year around the holidays, my co-workers plan to buy our boss a nice Christmas present with a set contribution of $75 per person. This year they also planned an office Christmas party dinner at a nice restaurant where we will pay our own way. I simply do not have the money to participate in all this, but it is expected of me. I am incredibly embarrassed to be the only one in this situation, and I feel that if I don't participate, I will be looked down upon. How can I explain to them that I want to be included, but I cannot afford the activities that are planned without my input?

—Broke

Dear Broke,
Your office mates chip in $75 each for a gift for the boss? Who do you work for, Dear Leader? The boss should have years ago graciously put an end to this reverse bonus. Subordinates are under no obligation to give gifts to the boss—or even to one another. And such an extravagant one is completely inappropriate. It's one thing if people want to bake cookies or distribute small holiday favors to everyone. But being told to pony up $75 for the boss is a kind of extortion. (If the company, as a corporate expense, gives gifts to employees, you incur no obligation beyond expressing your thanks.) When your colleagues come by rattling their cup, you should say that you can't contribute to this kitty and you understand if they want to leave your name off the card. As for the dinner, if it's the official office party at a restaurant, it should be underwritten by the company. If it's a more informal gathering initiated by the employees, it should be held at a venue that suits everyone's budget. Since it's not, offer your regrets that you're not able to attend. And if your office has a human resources department, you might want to bring up with it the idea of instituting a formal holiday policy.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My husband gives the best gifts, but when he receives them it's much less enjoyable. He is meticulous about everything from clothes to gadgets. He spent weeks researching just the right toaster. While I love and appreciate that about him, it makes buying him gifts stressful and painful for me. Gift-giving means a great deal to me, and I spend a lot of time finding him things he'll like. But he either returns my gifts or gives them to Goodwill. We have discussed this at length; he knows how much it upsets me. I have tried several approaches, including wish lists, but he doesn't even like the things he picks out for himself. Is this something I just have to accept about my husband and "get over it," or is there another solution? Please help—I have run out of ideas for Christmas.

—It's the Thought That Counts

Dear It's the Thought,
This kind of controlling self-abnegation means something psychologically to your husband, and it certainly sounds unpleasant for both of you. It's hard to believe this doesn't manifest itself in other ways and is just confined to receiving gifts. However, you've come up with all the obvious solutions, and if your husband can't bear to keep a gift that he himself has chosen, you're going to have to direct your desire to give elsewhere. Enjoy selecting just the right thing for family and friends, and tell your husband you know that gifts are for some reason painful for him, so you will stop inflicting them. Surely, he cares about some cause—it sounds like he's a supporter of Goodwill—so you might want to give him a card showing you made a donation in his honor. Once the credit card charge clears, even your husband is not going to be able to "return" that gift.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence:
My mom and dad were a nun and a priest who left the church before they met each other. They got married, become psychologists, and did a wonderful job raising our little family. My father died when I was young. When I came out as gay to my mom and brother after high school, it did not go well. I was basically cut off, especially emotionally. I did the tough work of creating the life that I wanted. Over the years, we have taken baby steps toward rebuilding our relationship. The subject of my sexuality, though, has remained taboo. My mom has recently started lamenting that we are not closer as a family. But neither my mother nor my brother has asked me a single question about my personal life for the past 14 years! I have wonderful friends who accept me for who I am, and sometimes I would prefer to spend the holidays with them. I am feeling the urge to bring this up and explain to my family that we won't ever be close unless they are willing to accept me 100 percent. My mother is elderly and has some health issues. I don't want to cause her stress, but blindly agreeing to her demands undermines what I've had to do to accept myself. Should I ask my mother and brother to grow beyond their prejudices, keep them at arm's length, or simply be thankful for the fact that my mom is still on this earth and swallow my hurt?

—It's a Wonderful (Queer) Life

Dear It's a Wonderful,
Your mother has experienced the pain that comes from trying to be something she knew in her soul she couldn't be. Then she threw off that life and became a psychologist! Surely, she of all people should understand what it means to be true to yourself, and the psychic cost of rejection by loved ones. Sit down and talk about this with her. Explain what you've said here—that the closeness she wants requires accepting all of you. If you have to keep hiding your personal life, she can't expect that your relationship will be anything more than superficial. Say you would like to be closer, but that means being able to talk about your whole life, and to even be accompanied on visits home by a partner or dear friend. Then leave it up to her. If she says she can't get over your "sin," then say you love her and will always have a relationship with her, but you are going to spend occasions such as the holidays with the family you have made, the people who accept you completely.

—Prudie

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