An ongoing topic of discussion in our household is how we handle “spoilers” in literature and film. It came up again one evening when one of the kids asked to flip ahead in the illustrated version of the Harry Potter book Brian was reading to them. His instinct was that this should be off-limits because the pictures can give things away about the story they have yet to read, and this, for him, tarnishes the experience. I’m of a different mind about it because sometimes I like to have an idea of what’s going to happen, especially considering the enormity of “unknowns” in real life. In my opinion, depending on the material, it can improve one’s experience of engaging with the content to know what to expect. For instance, for Arlo, if he flips ahead in the book and sees something scary, at least he knows to prepare himself for it and can pluck up his courage as they approach that chapter. Similarly, there are some cases in which I want to know what happens in a text or a movie so I don’t become emotionally invested in a character who, let’s say, doesn’t live ’til through final chapter or until the credits roll.
Sure, it’s great to experience all of the feelings as they would unfold in real time for some content, but there are instances in which I would elect to eliminate suspense, and I think I have the right to choose to experience the material in whatever way would maximize my enjoyment of it as long as I remain respectful of others’ choices surrounding the dissemination, or lack thereof, as it pertains to giving things away. Sometimes Summerly asks if she can preview one of the mini mysteries in the books I read to them at night before we experience it together, and I say yes because she never gives anything away unless expressly given permission, and she enjoys hearing the story a second time while knowing the ending. This way she gets to participate in the experience of witnessing us encounter the material for the first time, which can provide an interesting filter for interaction.
At the preschool my kids attended, the way they celebrated the kids’ birthdays involved something called the Birthday Fairy. This fairy would arrive bedecked in all manner of fancy attire, including wings and a (usually pink) wig, and she always had some kind of ornate face mask (I mean the pre-covid type of mask, the kind worn at masquerade parties, to disguise the fact that the fairy was actually one of the kids’ moms flying incognito). She would come toting her wand to guide the kids through a short birthday activity, give them a little gauze bag with the number of glass pebbles in it that corresponded to the number of years they were turning, and after she departed, the class would always run to the window to look for the wake of pink fairy dust trailing into the sky as she flew off to wherever Birthday Parties live.
After Arlo celebrated his fourth birthday at school, he came home disappointed and confused. I asked him what was on his mind and he said, “All of my friends said they saw the pink dust in the sky, but I couldn’t see it. I was looking right where they were looking, and there wasn’t any pink dust at all. Why could they see it and I couldn’t?” It was probably at this point that I poured myself a glass of wine because, although I’d somehow avoided this line of questioning with my older two kids, nothing gets past Arlo. I’d been to enough birthdays at the preschool to have seen this firsthand; there are always several, if not many, kids who claim to see the pink dust, and it made me a little uncomfortable every time. I told myself that their active imaginations were at work here, and that the power of suggestion combined with belief in magical ideas like Birthday Fairies combined with a real desire to see evidence of magic could indeed color their vision just like it colors the way kids see the world in so many other ways. I knew this was the only explanation I could give Arlo, so I gave it, believing at the time that he wanted some truth but wasn’t ready to have the whole Birthday Fairy bubble burst completely just yet.
As a parent, sometimes it’s hard to know when kids are ready to discover the reality of certain things, and we live in a culture where Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are all commonplace concepts. In our family, we decided to keep Santa real for now, but we never led the kids to believe that the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy were anything other than anthropomorphized familial goodwill, so my feelings about the Birthday Fairy tradition were ambivalent. I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, however, until one night when I was saying goodnight to Arlo, who was about to turn six, and he told me about what had happened at school that day.
“So, Mommy, I figured something out at school today. When I was over in the Nature Playground, I saw a Birthday Fairy come out of the preschool and get into her car and drive away. So now I know why I couldn’t see the pink dust in the sky.”
“That’s right,” I said. “So you figured it out, huh? She doesn’t really fly away. What do you think about this?”
“Well, Sophie says the Birthday Fairy is just a mom dressed up.”
“That’s true. Sophie’s got it right.”
“But Bee said she thought the Birthday Fairy was an actual fairy. Isn’t that sweet?”
In this case, the spoiler seems to have come at just the right time, which is always a relief. As I closed his bedroom door, I remembered a few years ago when Liam had lost a front tooth. I told him he could put it under his pillow so the Tooth Fairy could exchange it for a dollar, tossing a wink his way as I said it. He puffed himself up theatrically and pointed at me, one hand on his hip, and said, “That’s YOU! Put on some wings immediately!”
It was that moment when life dropped a spoiler alert on me: sometimes the best magic comes from a place where no magic ever needed to be.