Teaching Children Fantasy vs. Reality

Maria Montessori, creator of the now-famous Montessori teaching method, believed children should only be exposed to nonfiction books. She felt reading fiction only confused children - and taught them not to trust adults. While I would never prevent my children from listening to or reading fiction (since it's often a fun and effective way to teach facts and morals), I understand where Montessori was coming from.

As Christian parents, we need to be mindful to help our child wade through the mix of real and unreal they encounter every day: The Easter Bunny is pretend, Jesus is not. It's confusing stuff! 

Here's how I tackle this difficulty in our home:

1. From the moment I started telling or reading stories to my children, I labeled the story pretend or real. For example, whenever I pick up a storybook Bible to read to my kids, I say something like, "Now we're going to read some true stories about Jesus."

When children are quite young, it doesn't matter if they don't know the difference between "true" and "pretend." Now and then, I explain this to them briefly, but never expect them to fully comprehend. Instead, I just focus on labeling the story appropriately.

When we're done with the story, I also sometimes label it again: "Wasn't that a neat story about Jesus? And it's all true!"

2. I'm not afraid to have conversations about what's real and what's pretend. I'm always honest. If my child asks if the Tooth Fairy is real, I smile and say gently, "The Tooth Fairy is pretend. But it's fun to pretend, isn't it? Who do you think really puts coins under your pillow? What do you think the Tooth Fairy does with all that money?"

3. I taught my children, right from the start, about common childhood fantasy characters. For example, both my children knew from the time they were babies that Santa Clause is pretend. We read books about the man who inspired the myth of Santa (St. Nicholas) and we always said, "Santa is just for fun. He's pretend." This is NO WAY reduced the wonder and joy of Christmas for my children! Both my kids sit on Santa's lap. Both of them talk about how he leaves gifts in their stockings. Neither child finds this confusing - although my 4 year old sometimes forgets Santa is pretend. And that's okay! Young children have impressive powers of fantasy; God made them that way for a reason. But the Bible teaches that lying is sinful - so I simply won't lie to my kids. When my son is a bit older, he will know the fact that Santa is pretend - and will be able to combine it with a mature understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.

By the time your child is around 7 years of age, he or she will usually have a good grasp on what is real and what is not. This not only is an important life skill, but it deepens your child's spiritual life. I can talk to my kids about angels - or God - never fearing they believe either are pretend.

I know many modern parents fear they are somehow robbing their kids of childhood by being honest about these things - but I repeat: My children's world is packed full of wonder, including fun things like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Kids, you see, have much stronger powers of pretend than their parents. Just the way God intended.


  1. We have taught our kids that these things aren't true, either. We don't even participate in Santa in any way, and they still absolutely love the tree, lights, stories of Jesus, etc. Although we aren't mean about it and still enjoy singing Rudolph! :) When they lose a tooth, I tell them I will sneak into their room after they fall asleep and leave them a surprise. I just remember being so crushed when my mom finally had to be honest with me about things. And maybe it doesn't bother some people... but it did me. My husband and I just wanted our kids to know the truth. We do love a good pretend story, though!

  2. WE tell our kids the truth too and don't participate at all. WE celebrate but don't go along with silly things like tooth fairy. As for Santa, it's a man dressed up in a red suit. My kids do read books on fantasy though, and play a lot of pretend games where they are animals, or their own made up characters.