Ask my 10-year-old about the tooth fairy, and I am sure she’ll tell it like it is: “Mommy or Daddy put that money under my pillow and even wrote those cute notes the ‘tooth fairy’ left for me.”
Yet there she is, minutes after losing a tooth, penning her own cute note for the tooth fairy, recounting her dental accomplishment and how many teeth she’s now lost, with the note signed and decorated lovingly by that same 10-year-old—a child who, like so many of her peers, can seem jaded at such a young age, rolling her eyes as if she’s seen it all and knows exactly how the world works.
We’ve seen this at theme parks, too. She will tell us straight up, “I know these are people dressing up and pretending to be princesses, and then they go home afterward and don’t live in the castle here.” But that doesn’t stop her from running up to one in excitement, waiting in line for an autograph, or once even asking a Cinderella we met late in the day if she remembered speaking together earlier.
There’s a term for this. It’s called willing suspension of disbelief. Dictionary.com defines it as "a willingness to… believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.” It’s what we all do every time we watch a movie or read a novel. We get engrossed in fiction. The better it is, the more directly and emotionally it speaks to us, the more real it may seem. We care deeply whether Romeo gets his Juliet, whether Charlie Brown can kick that football, whether E.T. gets home. We know these people aren’t actually people, that their story sprang from the writer’s imagination. We just don’t care. We’re having fun, we’re thoroughly engrossed, and it’s real to us, at least for the moment, so we’re perfectly willing to go along with the fantasy and not dwell on the fact that it’s all a fiction.
It’s the same for kids, so I shouldn’t be surprised at my daughter’s embrace of the make-believe. In fact, it’s healthy for kids to use their imaginations and live out these fantasies. It helps them sort through their emotions and reactions to the world in a safe place while keeping the difficult realities of the actual world at a distance for as long as possible.
And yet, I am taken aback again and again when it happens, perhaps because kids at that age take such pride and insist so deeply that they are grown up, they understand the world, won’t be fooled, and are past that “baby” stage of believing in myths and fantasies.
In truth, our kids are always figuring out the world around them. But growth is hardly linear. The kid who is adamantly independent today is surprisingly clingy and needy tomorrow, before returning to such fierce independence that we parents miss the clinginess of yesterday. And the kid who breaks her sister’s heart by informing her that Mommy is the tooth fairy—because, let’s get real, kid, there is no such thing as fairies—is tomorrow composing the perfect note to impress the tooth fairy who is scheduled to visit tonight.
I don’t think I am alone in saying I cherish those moments when my world-weary big girl embraces her inner child and enjoys the fantasy of make-believe. We parents engage in our own suspension of disbelief when it comes to our kids. We think they will need and be close to us forever, that the joy they take in hugging a princess they know deep down inside is just an actress playing a role will last forever. We know some little piece of their innocence is lost when they abandon that fantasy entirely. But they’re just doing what humans do, and have done, always—grow up, understand their world better, and face the realities of life, for good and bad. Perhaps it’s our own lost innocence that we’re really mourning as we watch our kids move on from those days when princesses and superheroes and tooth fairies are real.