Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Monster Exterminators

please hold off on throwing the rotten tomatoes at me...

The Christmas season always brings some moments of conflict for my children. We have never promoted Santa in our holiday celebrations, partly in an effort to keep the holiday focused on the birth of Jesus, and partly because we never felt comfortable in feeding them the elaborate story of Santa, complete with fake gift tags, reindeer hoof marks, and cookies and milk.

I know...we're mean, awful parents destroying our children's childhood moments.

throw tomatoes now.

The conflict comes at school when our children encounter other children who whole-heartedly believe the myth promoted by parents, teachers, and just about every grown-up they encounter. We've had to remind our children that it's OK if other people like to pretend there is a Santa. We've also had to instruct them not to argue with the other kids in their classes about the non-existence of the chubby one. They understand and usually keep mum about it.

Santa is harmless enough.  It's a once a year ruse meant to make the holiday special to young children. I understand the desire to indulge and by no means think poorly of other people who plunge headlong into the story.

The question becomes, for me, at what level does fantasy go from harmless to counter-productive in raising our children?

In our area there is a business, very much like this one, specializing in selling monster sprays, guaranteed to eliminate any scary bogeymen under the bed, hiding in the closet, or lurking behind doors.  You buy the product, go monster-hunting with your child and spray the monster repellent everywhere that your child is fearful.  

This is an old parenting trick that people have decided is a money-maker.  You gotta love the entrepreneurial spirit--fake products for fake problems with people willing to pay for it.

As if buying monster sprays seems a little strange, though maybe understandable if you're trying to calm a very young child, the local business goes to much further lengths to relieve a child's fears.  Parents can hire an actual "monster exterminator" to come to the house.  He brings exterminating equipment, complete with pesticide tank and sprayer.  He'll interview the child, go from to room to room spraying everywhere the child tells him to.  He'll leave an invoice and guarantee of monster protection.

While detailing this new business on the 6:00 news, a mom smiled sweetly as her earnest child recounted his scary stories to the exterminator, nodding approvingly through the entire process. Her child seemed to be about 7 or 8 years old, in the same age group as my children

So sweet....right?  Hire an actor to come to your house and help you fool your child in an effort to make them feel better.

I found it a little disturbing on several different levels.  

By the age of 7 or 8 children are pretty smart.  They like fantasy and imaginary stories, but they're not dumb. They are more than capable of piecing together their parents' foibles and figuring out some basic things about human nature. Hiring a "monster exterminator" is an easy way to lose credibility in their eyes.  Surely, the next day their children will be telling their friends about their experience and getting some strange looks and outright denials of the existence of "monster exterminators".  

Monster extermination becomes a deception that will be hard to maintain without extensive corroboration from neighbors, grandparents, and other adults in the child's life. When it comes to Santa, such a framework exists.  The majority of the American public plays along and reviles those who crush a child's belief in him.  When it comes to the monster exterminator, no such framework exists. A child will soon find out the truth.

Discovering that Santa isn't real can be a disappointment to a child, but usually they aren't upset about it; they are getting gifts, after all.  Normally, kids are very pleased with themselves, and their detective skills, when they find out their parents have been playing the role of  Santa. While realizing their parents haven't been truthful, they recognize it as good fun and not malicious deceit.

On the other hand, a child who is troubled enough to need a monster exterminator has an invested interest in making sure his problem is solved. His peace of mind is relying on the "fix" from the exterminator. Uncovering the truth about the exterminator, and the trick his parents took part in, would have the potential to bring back the fears with which he was already struggling, and would add a helping of mistrust of his parents, and adults in general, to the mix. If grown-ups will go to such lengths to make believe about something so important to him, how can they be trusted?

As the story wrapped up, I laughed to myself as I thought about the whole enterprise.  I wondered how different we are as adults. Thinking of the many superstitions people hold, the popularity of psychics, people rearranging their houses according the principle of feng shui, the popularity of books like The Secret....a never-ending list of  products and practices aimed at solving human fears and worries with fake solutions.  

Our capability for well-meaning self-deception is high.

There's something to be said about paying money for relief from our fears.  The link between money and religion has always existed.  Perhaps, because the things that we value and intrinsically desire are worth much more to us than our material goods.  Peace of mind is more valuable than gold or diamonds. We are willing to sacrifice for the contentedness of the soul.

The monster exterminator is simply a childlike manifestation of the adult witch doctor or curandera.

Our capability for well-meaning self-deception is high.


MInTheGap said...

We've never pretended that there was a Santa Claus either-- but the strange is that this year my oldest has picked up on seeing Santa around and I can tell his little mind is trying to grapple with mom and dad saying that there is not one and that he's just pretend, and the fact that the rest of the world pretends that there is.

It makes you think through-- like you did-- what is truth and what is fantasy. Looking from his perspective, everyone says that there is a Santa, and his parents says that there is not. It's gotta be strange.

Just like, in your post, the child would say there is a monster, and the exterminator did something, and the rest of the world would say they're silly.

Under this post is the whole idea of reality, fantasy, and group think-- what do we believe because those around us believe it? What is reality, and what should we believe reality to be? What do we currently believe that's just fantasy?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You are talking my language here. We never taught Santa, a decision that was unpopular with my wife's family - her mother in particular. My objection stemmed from the number of times I heard people condescendingly say they gave up believing in God shortly after the gave up believing in Santa. This is likely untrue, but if that many people independently make that connection, I wonder if something is up.

As for monsters, we scared them away without specifically acknowledging the truth of them: "any monsters in here had better get out now. I have had it!" It's a small difference in terms of lying, but a large one in terms of the child's imagination. Sowing doubt about their existence is important.

Actually, it was wild cows hiding in the closet that were the problem. I have no idea where he got that.

alfa said...