I like teaching my children. I love it when they ask me questions like “What makes a rainbow?” and “Why do we have lips?” I encourage their natural curiosity and try to give them a simple grounding in science and nature. But every so often come those slightly awkward questions, like “how do reindeer fly?” I was caught off-guard with this one, distracted by the bed-time mayhem, and at first answered “well, they can’t.” But when I saw their confused little wide-eyed faces looking up at me saying , “but how does the sleigh fly then?” I realised my terrible mistake. I quickly backtracked. “Oh, you mean Father Christmas’s reindeer. Oh that’s something different. They have special magic.”
And here-in lies that delicate dance parents have between teaching their children science while allowing them a childhood filled with magic. I have taught my children about how drops of water bend the sunlight to make rainbows at the same time as telling them stories about pots of gold at the end of them. The incongruity of it isn’t lost on me, but I couldn’t possibly imagine bringing up my children without their believing in magic, Father Christmas and the tooth fairy. It may be an inconsistent approach to teaching children, but it’s one I stand by.
I often ask myself, how do I draw the line? Which parts do I give the “honest” answer to, and which parts do I allow them a little whimsy? Am I clouding their understanding of nature, explaining on the one hand that animals need wings to fly, while telling them Father Christmas’s reindeer can do it without them? And, crucially, are they going to start thinking they can defy gravity and fly without wings if they believe a little too readily in it? My answer is, I make it up as I go along. I answer with science 90% of the time, and give them just a little magic the rest of the time. Learning the laws of nature, and knowing how to observe and understand the world around us is incredibly important. But so is believing in magic.
Growing up I believed easily in everything. I believed so firmly in Father Christmas that even when other children at school started to tell me that it was my parents filling the stockings, I simply did not believe them. “I have proof – he wrote me a letter,” I would inform them confidently, and ever so slightly condescendingly. When my parents began to worry that I might be laughed at at school, they decided to break the news to me. I remember the moment vividly, and how it rocked my world and everything that I held as certain. However, I do not regret for one moment ever having believed. My childhood was magical and wonderful because of it. When else in life can you have the opportunity, and innocence, to believe that a kindly old gentleman of indeterminate age gives all children around the world the very gift they had been wanting? When else can you believe that maybe, just maybe, if you concentrate enough, your magic will change the channel on the TV, or (as my daughter believes) change the colour of Daddy’s boxer shorts. It’s a world of possibilities and wonder, of children’s stories so vividly exciting just because you believe they might be true. It’s the birth of imagination.
Science, logic, observation and enquiry are essential to our minds, and to answering important questions about the world around us and our place in it. I firmly believe that feeding and satisfying children’s natural scientific curiosity is essential. But imagination also has a very important place. We need it in order to come up with innovative ideas and new concepts. But, most importantly, we need it because it’s fun. Believing in fairies and pixies and pots of gold are all part of developing that imagination, as well as creating some magical memories.
My son has a naturally scientific mind. He is very logical already at six years old. He questions my “magical” answers very closely. He has already asked me outright whether Father Christmas is real. I feel a little guilty, but I just told him a bare-faced lie, because I couldn’t imagine having a six-year-old who didn’t believe in magic. He will have his whole life to believe in science and the laws of physics, but the time to believe in magic is so precious and short, I’ve kept it going a little longer. So for now, while most reindeer are ground-dwelling even-hoofed herbivores, Father Christmas’s reindeer fly using special Christmas magic.