Lying to Kids: Family pranks, Santa Claus, and childhood innocence

At the beginning of October, my wife took our three children to shop for Halloween costumes. This is always a dicey endeavor, because when we’ve bought costumes well in advance of Halloween in previous years it’s given our kids enough time to become dissatisfied with their selections, and thus make life miserable as they petition for a costume exchange. Conversely, when we’ve waited until Halloween is close at hand, our kids’ reactions to the remains of less-than-desirable disguises is like watching prisoners mull over the merits of electrocution versus being hanged.

But this year there was a lengthy lecture before the shopping trip. Promises were made. Oaths were taken. All involved knew the decision was final, and while my wife went out with the kids to deliberate, I stayed at home and waited for them to bring back their various verdicts.

An hour or so after their departure, my phone signaled that I had a text message. This is an unusual occurrence because I don’t like to text – I find it more efficient to talk rather than type with my thumbs. So I ignored it. After a while my phone beeped again. And then again.

When I checked my phone I found not texts but a photo of each of my children in their chosen costumes. Gavyn, who is in 3rd grade, was decked out as some sort of demon – quite appropriate to his penchant for all things scary. My four-year-old twin daughters were dressed as harlots.

In reality they were supposed to be witches, but the manufacturer of these particular witch costumes must have simply copied a design from an adult fetish catalogue and then sized it down: fishnet stockings, lacy black tops with plunging necklines, and skirts shamelessly too short. Up until this point I didn’t know it was possible to make an outfit that revealing for people who are so close to the ground as it is.

I called my wife. I was directed almost immediately to her voicemail. I left a diplomatic message requesting that she call me back. When she failed to return my call within five minutes, I broke down and texted her: Is this a joke?

A few minutes later I got a response: No. Soooo adorable.

I did not reply, but instead headed for the bathroom to see if there were any Valium floating around. She wasn’t tricking me, was she?

Hard to imagine, because normally I’m the prankster in the family. When my son, Gavyn, was three, I took the liberty of playing a trick on him involving his small, green plastic army men. You know the ones: frozen in various battle poses, they come to life quite memorably in the Toy Story movie franchise. Such plastic soldiers are usually only two inches or so in height, but while I was out shopping one week I’d come across some which were six inches tall. I purchased them with the intent of simply handing them over to Gavyn, but on the return trip home from the store I hatched a plan to make him think his small platoon had been bewitched and transformed into their larger counterparts.

Prior to becoming a parent, I wielded a viciously self-righteous attitude when it came to deceiving children. My particular bone of contention involved Santa Claus, and I can only assume that the trauma of discovering Santa’s actual identity left me more scarred than I might care to admit. I mean, if my parents were willing to carry out an elaborate hoax for the first ten years of my life (yes – they successfully perpetrated that little ruse for a decade, which is a testament to their cunning and my gullibility), then what else might they be lying about? It seemed screwed up to me that parents would hammer their children with lessons about the evils of lying, all the while lying to their children about any number of things.

But I also come from a family of practical jokers, especially on my father’s side. The various pranks that were pulled at my expense are too numerous to fully recount, but I recall a morning when I was ten and we were visiting my uncle John in Georgia. John, looking a bit dazed, came groggily into the living room where I sat alone watching television. He then delivered a lengthy monologue about a dream he’d had during the night in which a large bird had flown into his mouth, turning him into a bird as well. I listened intently, but when he was finished I determined that his dream wasn’t that odd and I was slightly irritated that he had distracted me from a particularly enthralling chase between Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

“I’ve had stranger dreams,” I said.

“Yeah, so have I,” John said. “But my throat hurts this morning and I’ve got this weird cough.” He then began to clear his throat, quickly lapsed into a fit of coughing, and when he went to cover his mouth with his hand, a half a dozen white feathers seemed to erupt from mouth where they began to drift slowly to the floor. Or at least I assume they were drifting toward the floor – as soon as I saw what was happening I began shrieking like a girl half my age and bolted from the room to inform everyone else that John was on the verge of turning into a bird.

That was a relatively minor bit of theater compared to the other pranks which unfolded over weeks and months, but I must stress that none of these were ever mean-spirited. In fact when I think back on all the shenanigans, many of them seem rooted in the notion that there was some magic or mystery in the world which was yet to be discovered. Of course, every practical joke ended like an episode of Scooby Doo: no ghosts, no monsters, no one turning into a giant bird – just ordinary people in a very ordinary and plain world, completely devoid of magic.

A world absent of magic is the best way to describe my life before I had kids. Don’t get me wrong: I certainly had my fair share of that special, decadent grown-up magic that adults without responsibility have the luxury to indulge in. But it is nowhere near as enthralling as the unexplained mysteries of childhood, and it was in the spirit of that innocent wonder that I replaced Gavyn’s small army men with the larger ones that I’d purchased on a whim.

I did this while he was in the bath one night. He’d left his pint-sized platoon carefully arranged on his toy box, and I matched each one with an identical larger version so it would look as though they had simply tripled in size where they were standing. When bath time was over I dried him off, took him into his room, got him dressed, and made idle chit-chat while I waited for his reaction.

As is normally the case with my well-laid plans, things did not unfold as I predicted. No sooner was Gavyn dressed than he left his room in search of a snack. When his snack attack was properly attended to, he returned to his room, walked directly to the toy box, and – without so much as noticing my artfully arranged subterfuge – lifted the lid to the toy chest and sent soldiers and matchbox cars and other nick-knacks flying to the floor as he rooted around inside for Legos. I could barely contain myself; intervention was required.

I casually picked up one of the large soldiers and said to Gavyn:

“Where did this come from?”

He looked at the infantryman, only half curious.

“I don’t know,” he said. He turned his attention again to the toy box. So I picked up another, a soldier tossing a grenade, poised in mid-throw.

And now I had his attention. Gavyn cautiously took the soldier from my hand, turned him over several times in his own hands, and then glanced at the floor. All around him lay plastic green army men, clearly much bigger than they were an hour ago.

“What happened to my men?” He sounded more bewildered than alarmed.

“Well,” I said, “sometimes when toys are made in the factory, little creatures called gremlins sneak into the toy factories at night and sprinkle magic on top of the toys. That’s the only thing I can think of – these are magic toys, and when you were in the tub they grew.”

Gavyn held the soldier for a few seconds longer, then dropped him and turned and bolted from the room, screaming wildly as tears ran down his face. I couldn’t place it at the time, but the reaction had a note of familiarity to it.

I followed the sound of his screams into the kitchen where I found Gavyn wrapped in his mother’s arms. She was telling Gavyn that everything was fine, and when she saw me she said:

“What happened?” Her voice was soothing; her eyes burned with accusation.

“I don’t know. His army men were sprinkled with magic and -”

“They’re getting BIGGER!” Gavyn wailed. It was at that moment that I understood the source of his panic: if they’d gone from two inches to six in the span of a bath, then by Gavyn’s reckoning he’d be dealing with adult-sized plastic army men by the morning. Instead of being a merry prankster, I’d unwittingly been a source of utter terror.

And terror is exactly what I felt as I waited for the kids and Patrice to return from the store. My fear was equally divided between the horrible thought of sending the girls door-to-door, begging for candy while dressed like strippers, and also the argument that was bound to ensue when I demanded that the girls’ costumes be exchanged for burkas.

But much like Gavyn with the growing army men, my imagination had the best of me. When Patrice brought the kids home, Chloe proudly displayed her Alice-in-Wonderland costume while Isabella modeled her mermaid outfit.

“What happened to the witch costumes?” I tried to sound more curious than utterly relieved.

“Are you kidding?” Patrice said. “What kind of mom do you think I am? I don’t know what lunatic would dress a little girl in something that trampy.”

Then, as though reading my thoughts, Chloe said:

“Don’t worry, daddy. I’ll be a witch when I’m a big girl.”

And with those words I realized the joke was entirely on me: unlike Gavyn’s soldiers, my children will keep getting big, until one day when it will seem utterly mysterious – perhaps even magical – that they were ever small at all.

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