Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas

I am so angry. When my mother-in-law looked after her four-year-old grandson for the day, she apparently told him that Father Christmas doesn't exist

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Dear Virginia, I am so angry. When my mother-in-law looked after her four-year-old grandson for the day, she apparently told him that Father Christmas doesn't exist. He was confused and upset. She had already annoyed us by giving him a toy gun, of which she knows we disapprove. What should we do? Now I'm concerned that her stupid remark will ruin Christmas for all of us. Yours sincerely, Hilary

You feel angry! Well, I feel angry with both of you! I feel angry with your mother-in-law for trying to take the magic from a little boy's life – he is still young enough to enjoy a fantasy world. And I'm angry with you for leading the poor little chap up the garden path and insisting that Father Christmas exists, which, of course, he doesn't.

Don't either of you possess any subtlety? Aren't either of you familiar with the blurred grey area of a child's mind at this age, when things are half true and half not? No, they know there aren't really monsters, but small children still, at the back of their minds, believe them, in a vague way, to be true – or the concept of them to be true, not that they would use a word like that, of course. No, obviously you can't put spells on people – but isn't there a possibility that their parents do possess almost magical powers to make things better when they want to? No, dreams aren't real – but they do feel real.

As for Father Christmas, there's not much fun in thinking that a real man climbs down the chimney on Christmas Eve to fill up your stocking, and patently his sleigh couldn't be big enough to carry enough presents for every child in the whole world – but the idea of a man flying through the sky with a sackful of gifts is charming. Why don't you tell your son that Father Christmas might be real? You could tell him that you believed in him when you were a child.

"Some people believe in him, some don't..." you could say. " Grown-ups don't usually believe in him, but they might be wrong... Children often believe in him but they might be wrong." And you could add, " It doesn't sound likely he's true, but you never know, so it's worth putting out a glass of sherry and a mince pie for him, just in case. And anyway, it's fun."

Any bright four-year-old will know exactly what's going on, and will enter the whole spirit of the game. He'll be aware that a web is being spun to delight him – and, for a year or two, he'll go along with it. The truth will dawn on him gradually, and he'll be in the excellent position of being able to sneer at children who do believe in Father Christmas implicitly, if he's that sort of person, as well as being able to keep a pocket of exciting doubt in the back of his mind at the same time.

If I were you, I'd ask your son's grandmother to expand on her statement to your son. Ask her to peddle the same muzzy partyline. Even if she can just be persuaded to tell him that the idea is true, even if she doesn't believe he's true in real life, that will be sufficiently perplexing for him to be able to seize on the fantasy again if he wants to.

As for the gun, forget it. Unless you'd specifically told your mother-in-law about your gun ban (though if he doesn't have a gun, he'll use a carrot to shoot people with instead, you can be sure of that), she can't be blamed. One of the benefits of grannies is that they can help children to adapt to people with perhaps slightly different points of view, while loving them all the same.

Readers say

Just reassure him

Believe me, Hilary, an older sibling could have done the job just as well, and caused just as much damage!

The answer is to (re)assure him that as long as he still continues to believe in Father Christmas, then Father Christmas will continue to do the magic and fill his stocking; if he doesn't believe in Father Christmas then he won't call, but Mummy and Daddy will do the honours instead! This way, he's in control of what he wants to believe until he gradually, and quite naturally, grows out of it.

Sarah White, Southampton

You're lying to him

Your anger should be at yourself for perpetuating this myth and teaching your child that it is acceptable to mislead him with the false statement that Father Christmas exists.

You will hardly be able to later complain when he lies to you, when you are teaching him that there are circumstances in which family members can lie to each other. You should be teaching him, by example, of the need to be truthful. Your mother-in-law is clearly aware of this and is teaching your child what you as his mother should be.

As to the toy gun, you disapprove but you are not helping him be aware of the reality of life as you are failing to take the opportunity to instruct him as to the existence of guns and their destructive capacity, and these days they need to know. Again, you are teaching him that it is acceptable to withhold information that he should clearly have. Overprotective mothers harm the child.

R L Davey, Hampshire

Belief and reality

Hilary, it's like believing in God – if you do, He is real to you and exists for you, and it's the same with Father Christmas. Tell your mother-in-law she must not interfere in people's beliefs – they find out soon enough for themselves. After all, with the many Father Christmasses about, your little boy will soon wonder whether those beards are real.

Ilse Danby, Bristol

Seeing is believing

In this instance, I would tell the four-year-old that the reason granny doesn't think Father Christmas exists any more is because he only comes to good children and not to adults. As granny doesn't see Santa any more, she thinks he isn't real, but he is. Otherwise, how would your presents get here on Christmas Day?

With the mother-in-law, I would request that perhaps she should think before acting/speaking.

G and J Webster, by email

Get a life!

Oh, for goodness sake! Stop being so precious, and get a life! I'm sure your mother-in-law didn't do anything to deliberately upset you, and I doubt your son has been damaged for life, knowing there's no Father Christmas (it's the truth, after all). And I'm sure he won't turn into a gangster because he has a toy gun!

Penny Joseph, Shoreham-by-sea, West Sussex

He'll get over it

Children quickly bounce back, so he won't be upset for long. When Christmas comes, he will be far too excited at all the presents to worry about where they came from!

Claire Jones, Leicester

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia, I've been going out with my boyfriend for six months and it is getting pretty serious. The problem is that he still continues to see his ex-wife and baby son. He spends lots of time with her, and even stays over, although he says that they don't have sex. I feel very uneasy about it. Can I give him an ultimatum or would that be unfair? Yours sincerely, Helen

Send letters by Thursday to 'The Independent', 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax: 020-7005 2182; email: dilemmas@independent.co.uk, with postal address. Anyone with advice quoted will receive a Jewel Box from Prestat chocolatiers (www.prestat.co.uk)

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