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ERIN (9): No, they don’t.

DELANEY (6): Yes, they do!

ERIN: Laney, they don’t.

DELANEY: They do!

It was my girls in their bedroom on the first day of Christmas break, (damned) early in the morning, apparently engaged in Socratic discourse. Let’s listen in from the hall:

ERIN: They do not.

DELANEY: They do so.

ERIN: Laney, there’s no way they come alive.

DELANEY: I know they come alive, Erin!

I walked in.

DAD: Morning, burlies!

GIRLS: Hi Daddy.

DAD: What’s the topic?

ERIN: Laney thinks the elves really come alive.

DELANEY, pleadingly: They do! I know it!

I didn’t have to ask what elves they were on about. It’s apparently an extremely old or very new tradition here in Georgia — I’m new in town and wouldn’t know which. Kids buy little stuffed elves and place them somewhere at night before they go to sleep. In the morning, the elf, having come to life in the night, is somewhere new.

ERIN: How do you “know” it, Laney?

DELANEY: Because. I just do.

ERIN: What’s your evidence?

(Oooooooo, the old evidence gambit! This should be good.)

DELANEY: Because it moves!

ERIN: Couldn’t somebody have moved it? Like the Mom or Dad?

DELANEY: But [cousin] Melanie’s elf was up in the chandelier! Moms and Dads can’t reach that high.

ERIN: Oh, but the elf can climb that high?


DELANEY: They fly.

ERIN: Oh jeez, Laney.

DELANEY: Plus all the kids on the bus believe they come alive! And all the kids in my class! (Looks at me, eyebrows raised.) That’s a lot of kids.

So how to handle a thing like this? I want to encourage both critical thinking and fantasy. Fortunately Erin wasn’t being snotty or rude. Her tone was relatively gentle. As a result, Laney was not getting overly upset by the inquiry – just mildly defensive.

Erin finally looked at me and said in a half-voice: “I don’t want to ruin her fun, but…”

“You’re both doing a great job,” I interrupted. “This is a really cool question and you’re trying to figure it out! You’re asking each other for reasons and giving your own reasons, then you try to think of what makes the most sense—I love that!”

They both beamed.

“The nice thing is that you don’t have to agree.” (Celebrate diversity and all that. Only the Monolith is to be feared.) “You listened to each other and hashed it out. Now you can think about it on your own and decide, and even change your mind a million times if you want.”

I say that last line all the time. The invitation to change your mind knowing you can freely change it back makes it less threatening to test out alternatives. If you don’t like a new hypothesis, go back to your first one. It’ll still be there. That permission makes for more flexible thinking.

I also try to make the point that no one else can change your mind for you. You should always find out what other people think, but you don’t have to worry that they will reach in and change your mind without your consent. It’s amazing how powerful that simple idea is. In the end, only you can throw that switch and change your mind, so wander on through the marketplace of ideas without fear.

ferrell elfSo they let it go. Erin got practice at gentle persuasion, and a little critical seed was planted in Laney’s mind, along with the invitation to hang on to the fantasy as long as she damn well pleases. When her love affair with reality becomes so well-developed that knowing the truth is more important to her than thinking stuffed elves come to life, she’ll happily move on. But just as in other areas of belief involving dead things coming to life when no one is looking, I want her to make decisions under her own power.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.