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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Santa Claus myth

How harmful is it to lie to our kids, if we have them, about the existence of Santa Claus? I'm now in two minds. On balance, I think it's probably harmless enough, but the Christmas book that I've been reading has two essays on the subject examining the morality of the practice. One, by David Kyle Johnson, argues strongly against it; the other, by Era Gavrielides, is in favour.

I think that Johnson overreaches at points, and, again, I'm leaning towards being okay with the practice. I'm not convinced that it does any real harm, and I don't go around with some kind of absolute standard of opposing lies in all circumstances.

Still, there's something at least tacky about the giving children misinformation, and I certainly resent little half-recalled examples of this from my own childhood. I most definitely dislike the idea that it's "cute" for children to be deceived and to act on the basis of their misapprehensions. But for all that, I don't resent being told stories about Santa Claus in particular. I just don't feel that it harmed me.

I don't very clearly remember the circumstances in which my parents came clean about the non-existence of Santa Claus. I do recall that it was when I discovered a children's book that I knew I was supposed to be getting for Christmas ... in a wardrobe at home. It was obviously waiting to be wrapped for me and left as a present on Christmas Eve - and this kind of proved that the gift was coming my way from my mum and dad, not from Santa. When I challenged them on it, they came clean that of course it was all make believe; and the way I remember this, I wasn't at all surprised because I'd already worked out for myself that the whole story didn't add up. I can't, however, recall more than that, and I'm not at all sure how old I was at the time: I've got no other recalled events from my very young life at the time to match it against.

Johnson, who is writing a book on the subject, says that many people tell him stories about their experiences of learning that Santa Claus was a fake - and many of these stories express memories of childhood disillusion and distress, and feelings of ongoing bitterness. What about you? Can you recall when you worked out that the Santa story was made up, and/or when your parents came clean about the Santa Claus myth? Was the experience hurtful to you in any way, do you think? Do you feel that your period of believing in Santa was even beneficial?

If you have kids, did you/will you tell them the Santa story? Do you think it's the right thing to do? Does it worry you in any way?

48 comments:

Alexander Johannesen said...

Yes, it does worry me that I have to lie to my children. My Christian wife thinks it's alright, that it's only a childhood cutesy thing, but skeptic me finds it a wee bit frustrating to point out the irony of her predicament. Lying a little surely has a lesson about lying in there. I would like to tell my kids about how the world works in order for them not to be taken advantage of, and when the time comes that will be the angle for why I "had" to lie to them. But right now I have to agree to lie to them about several things, not because we have any good reasons for doing so (people rarely actively think about why they do the things they do), but because "that's what we do." And that's the worst reason to do anything.

But it gets worse. I'm sick of Christmas, in a big way. Sick of the double-standard of religious (devout or not) folks who embrace both the lying and the egoistical embrace of presents over whatever original meaning their religion made of it, and then precede to defend their practice from *cultural* reasons.

And further still, I'm sick of all these things being called "choices" when clearly no one is making choices, they simply follow suit. I'm sick of the argument that when religious people do something that is dubious, it's really a good thing because of their religion, but when others do something dubious it it's because they're evil and without religion. Lying to children is dubious at best, but there's a double standard as to whether it's ok or not.

On a related note, can we take Christmas back, and make it into a celebration of solstice again? *grumble*

Alex Topfer said...

Personally I feel that it is wrong to deliberately mislead people, and that includes telling children that santa exists. Though I probably won't correct children about it, unless asked directly, as that seems like it will just cause problems with my family/friends.

James Bradley said...

I've just bombarded you with a series of tweets and thought it might be better if I used sentences of more than 140 characters.

The first thing I'd say is that anybody who's carrying around pain because their parents lied to them about Santa Claus really needs to get a bit of perspective: as childhood traumas go it's pretty ridiculous.

But I think this whole argument is deeply weird. Santa is just one of a whole pile of semi-imaginary presences in the lives of small children, but it's one they like and one that brings them a lot of pleasure. It's also useful for parents like me who are not religious but celebrate a secular version of Christmas, since it allows you to sidestep all the religious aspects. Perhaps it might be more consistent to just not celebrate Christmas, but that seems pretty joyless to me, especially when everybody else does: I'm not about to prevent my kids doing something that brings them genuine happiness because I have an ideological problem with a festival.

More deeply though, I'm troubled by the notion that allowing children to believe in Santa is "lying". In fact children believe in all sorts of things, from Shrek to Snow White ot Superman. How real those beings are isn't clear to me. Sometimes my four year-old seems to understand Superman is a story, sometimes she seems to think he's real. But either way the process of believing in him, in imagining his existence and listening to stories about him is helping develop her imagination, her sense of how to draw meaning from a narrative and how to imagine diferent ways of being in the world, and, as time goes on, helping her learn to hold two ideas in her head at once.

This is, of course, much the same thing we do when we read novels and stories as adults, a process we celebrate for its capacity to open our minds, but I think it's probably even more important for children. Indeed listening to stories and imagining them for ourselves is actually the way we learn a great many very important things: flexibility of mind, awareness of difference and tolerance, self-reliance, even an interest in the sense of the structure of things that underlies science. I know my childhood was immensely enriched by my fascination with ghosts and aliens and fairy stories and SF, all of which I sort-of believed in.

Eamon Knight said...

I don't think my parents ever told me Santa Claus was real (or if they did, it turned into a pretend game when I was young enough that I don't remember). We always told our kids that Santa was a pretend game -- we did, however tell them that God was real, though all four of us recovered from that one all right in the end.
However, we were amazed at how many adults at our (liberal) church took the whole Santa thing very seriously, and how you mustn't disillusion the kiddies -- it was as bad or worse than telling that God didn't exist!

Anonymous said...

When we had our son, we resolved not to tell him the Santa Claus myth. From an early age, we explained to him that "Santa was a type of pretend game that adults like to play, too!" And indeed, every year, we all played the game together, with the understanding that it was, in fact, a game. Still do.

People say that if you don't lie about Santa that the kids are somehow missing something, but I don't believe this. Kids understand the difference between "pretend" and "real" from a pretty early age, and they still enjoy playing pretend even when they know the difference. Ours did.

Dean Buchanan said...

I don't recall when I learned (or figured out) that there was no Santa or Easter Bunny. I do recall figuring out out that the Tooth Fairy was false. I heard my mom and dad arguing when he had forgotten to get the silver dollar they usually gave me for losing a tooth.
With my youngest child, we never lied about Santa or the Tooth Fairy. We are trying to raise a skeptical child, therefore, we encourage him to question assertions, even by adults. We have also talked to him about keeping the secret from the younger kids, as a show of respect.
Parents can, and I believe should, take these opportunities to help children think about claims that are made by the society in which they live.
So I look at this as an opportunity cost. This reflects my current view that one of the most important things we can do as a parent these days, is to teach children how to think critically.

josef johann said...

I most definitely dislike the idea that it's "cute" for children to be deceived and to act on the basis of their misapprehensions.

I strongly agree with this. I would even take it further. It's a tremendously serious issue. It may not be immediately damaging but I think it sets the stage for turbulence in teenage years.

Too often adults just don't take their kids seriously, and I think Santa is a myth that encourages this way of treating little kids like stuffed animals whose emotional lives aren't as real as our own, and that the reality of who and what they are is exhausted by the holidays (it "brings out the best.")

This sets up a false familiarity that gets in the way of mutual understanding once kids become teenagers and start having more adult-like intellectual and emotional needs.

It is often said that kids "grow up so fast" but I think there is a mythology of what children are, and it's only by the time a kid becomes a teenager they are unmistakably different from that mythology in a way that makes it look like "change" has occurred.

While kids change a lot, I think more change is perceived to have happened to than has actually happened. And much of the barrier between parents and their children arises from the false familiarity built up in part by christmas.

Physicalist said...

We're telling our little one about Santa, but when he presses me on whether Santa's real or pretend I tell him he has to figure that out for himself.

Alexander Johannesen said...

James Bradley: "I'm troubled by the notion that allowing children to believe in Santa is 'lying'."

Santa does not exists, you know this, yet say that he does. Is there anything in this that doesn't constitute lying? It is the very definition of lying to knowingly tell the opposite of what is true.

This is not about *allowing* children to have their beliefs, this is about how a whole culture is in on the scam, allowing children to believe in something we all know damn well is *false*. You are lying. Deliberately. Fully intentional. It doesn't matter if you think your lying is harmless, it is still lying. If anything you need to be defending lying, especially in regards to the precedence and model it creates. There is a larger problem of our society where beliefs trumps truth all the time, to the chagrin of truth, science and for the good of human-kind, sometimes with pretty severe consequences. Beliefs are, in general, a substitute for truth, and I cannot defend this practice.

Do I need to remind you that the middle letters of "believe" spells "lie"? :)

Sarge said...

Before I turned six I had looked about me and figured out certain things which I have not changed my opinion of:
School was NOT fun...
Arithmetic was NOT easy if I "just worked at it...
Persons In Authority (teachers, police, etc) did NOT have my best interests at heart...
People who insisted on some action "for my own good" were more interestted in THEIR good than mine...
The deity they told me about in Sunday school and church was one of the more absurd things I was subjected to, even the people who claimed to believe it and insisted that I at least go along with the gag and keep my mouth shut demonstraed that they really thought it was bunk, too...
Ice cream cones were hollow...

I could go on, but Santa was one of the least and in fact something that had a tangible element to it.
Oh, I didn't buy it, either, after all, my father was in the army and gov't housing is celebrated for it's stack-a-family housing and they're mighty short of fire places and chimneys in such an environment.

I asked my now-grown sons about it, and they said it didn't hurt them, either. It was just a bedtime story with benefits, which was pretty much the way I saw it.

It's like a paraphrase of the sphynx's riddle for most people: first you accept Santa Claus, then you don't believe in Santa Claus, then, you BECOME Santa Claus.

Most kids know it's a crock of crap, really, but, what the heck? Why not have fun?

Thanny said...

Well, the parallels between Santa and Yahweh are too close for my comfort. Make believe guy who rewards or punishes you later on for your behavior right now?

In my case, I was about three or so when I took issue with the fact that there seemed to be a Santa in two different malls. My parents tried to say they were his helpers, but I knew that his helpers were elves, and big guys in red suits that look just like Santa are not elves, so I didn't buy it.

I don't recall ever catching them putting presents under the tree, but that's certainly possible, too. Overall, I have no actual memory of believing in Santa.

I don't have children, but I do have two nieces, currently 11 and 3. Their mother, my sister, chose to tell them the Santa myth. I don't much like it, but I'm unsure enough about my opinion that I agreed not to volunteer the truth. I did warn her that direct questions on the topic would not be answered with lies.

In any case, the 11-year-old learned the truth a year or two ago, and I don't think it did her any psychological harm at all. Whether it affected her critical thinking skills is another matter, yet to be determined.

James Bradley said...

I'm sorry, Alexander, but I think that's a silly and extreme response. Do you tell your children every story they read is untrue? Do you sit next to them reminding them Shrek isn't real when they enjoy a movie? I'm pretty sure you don't, because to do so would fatally misunderstand the role fiction and stories play in our lives. If - when - my daughter asks me if Santa is real I'll tell her he's a story; for now I'm happy for her to enjoy that story in the same way she enjoys Shrek and Superman.

And I'm afraid your argument that allowing children to believe in Santa is the first step in a larger mystification is just fatuous (are you really suggesting Santa = Iraq? I hope not). As you say yourself, kids are complex creatures, and they're capable of understanding there are different kinds of truth and different realities. Indeed I'd argue discovering some things are stories and others aren't is actually part of the process of coming to that understanding.

It's also absurd because it's a de facto argument against the whole idea of fiction. Are you really suggesting we shouldn't read stories? Or are you suggesting we should never allow ourselves to believe, even for a moment, that those stories are real or true? Because for fiction to work we do have to give ourselves over to it and believe it, at least in the moment, and that belief is as unsettling and dubious in rational terms as Santa (though I suppose here you'll say it's okay because adults understand the difference, which would be an interesting reversal of the old notion that stories are for kids, facts are fro grown-ups).

I'd also point out that the line you're running is basically Plato's, but it's also present in a number of fundamentalist traditions, all of which are deeply suspicious of the power of fiction to undermine the dominant belief system. So it's certainly not automatically the case that belief in stories and the acceptance of fictional narratives as real is the antecedent to societies where dogma and belief trump reason: the relationship between the two is much less simple than that.

Steve Zara said...

The problem for me here is that I never believed it anyway, at any age.

But, I think it might actually be useful for children to find out about the passing of fantasy. I see no harm at all in the Santa Claus myth.

Alexander Johannesen said...

James Bradley: "Do you tell your children every story they read is untrue?"

Part one :

I tell them it's a story. They understand it's a story, especially the older they get. A story is a fictional account. They get that. Every once in a while they would ask if it really happened, and I would say "no, it's just a story.". I've got three kids across a 10 year span, and that phrase is used more often than not, especially dealing with hearsay.

However, we don't do that with Santa. We tell them he's real. Society says he's real, and you can meet him at the mall and the belief is made stronger. We don't say it's a story, we say he really does exist. The character is pronounced real.

"if Santa is real I'll tell her he's a story"

But that's not the argument here. It's not when we say "it's a story" that it becomes a problem. It's when we claim he's real. Now, maybe I got you wrong and maybe you do say "it's a story", but I'm reminding you that I'm responding to your assertion that "I'm troubled by the notion that allowing children to believe in Santa is 'lying'." How do you allow them? By not telling the truth, by being in on the culturally accepted mass-lying to children.

"are you really suggesting Santa = Iraq?"

Uh, WTF?

"Indeed I'd argue discovering some things are stories and others aren't is actually part of the process of coming to that understanding"

I of course agree with this, and it's the only thing about it which makes it somewhat tolerable. However, it can sway either way. It can either teach them a lesson about how we discern fact from fiction (and hopefully make them a bit wary of trusting what adults tell them), or it could sway them to be gullible and believe in all sorts of whackaloonery.

My biggest problem with all of this is that it is a culturally approved lie (downplayed by people who either think it's harmless or a lesson worth having), teaching kids that it's ok to fool people, that deceit is ok for the cutesy pleasure of adults, "we just wanted you to have a pleasant childhood" as if lying gives any such guarantee.

It may not be a big thing and most people still grow up into sensible human beings, but I'm very wary of how it also kicks the other way. I don't like it. I think it is wrong. I think it silently indoctrinates us all that half-truths and foolery are a fun and needed thing. It is not.

mark said...

NEVER lie to your kids -- if, that is, you want them to grow up as skeptical, critical, independent thinkers.

Why?

Because to kids, parents are Gods. Whatever they say must be true -- until they find out it wasn't.

Of course, learning the truth affects kids differently: some aren't affected, some are traumatized.

Lying to your kids is never "innocent." Kids model their parents and will, as adults, do what their parents DID, not what their parents SAID.

As for Shrek, Cinderella and the rest: we present them to our kids as fairytales.

We present Santa, the Tooth Fairy, et. al. as the TRUTH -- and then knowingly deceive them to bolster that lie.

There's a big difference.

Alexander Johannesen said...

James Bradley: "Do you tell your children every story they read is untrue?"

There are so many things I could respond to in your spiel, but I've tried a few times and Blogger.com seems to stuff things up for me. But here's the gist of my much, much longer reply;

Fiction is, in our society, recognized as fiction. As a fiction writer, I'm quite happy for this. I don't have a problem with fiction. I have a problem with lying. And saying Santa is real ... is lying. It's on par with the Tooth Fairy. Society reinforces this false belief through various "evidence" (presents, coins), and we seem more than happy to go along with planting false evidence. How fucked up is that?


"are you really suggesting Santa = Iraq?"

WTF?

Hamilton Jacobi said...

There is a very nice series of posts on this topic over on Dale McGowan's site (the links inside are worth following too). He basically uses this as a training course in critical thinking.

Alex SL said...

I agree that it does not seem to be a harmful lie. To be honest, what exactly is a lie? As Terry Pratchett wittily pointed out, there is a lot of what he calls lies for children around us, and we all constantly use them with each other. The earth has a spherical shape; speed is distance divided by time; the sun is a big ball of fire. All these are not-actually-truths that we tell youngsters who are not quite capable of grasping the slightly-closer-to-truth for slightly more capable, older people. I surely remember my indignation when I found out that item #2 was a, well, lie, or if you want, oversimplification. In summary, if you are the kind of personality that is offended by having been lied to about Santa, you better prepare for a lot of disappointment in all areas of your life.

On the other hand I also fail to see the point of the Santa myth specifically. AFAIK my parents never made me believe in it, I do not think I have lost anything that way, and I do not currently have plans to prop it up myself, although this would have to be discussed with my partner.

James Bradley said...

Alexander - I still think your reaction is silly and over the top. And I also think that with small children the distinction you're making between stories and lies is less clear than you're pretending it is: often they both believe and don't believe things, and there are many forms of narrative they engage with that extend beyond the page.

Similarly with fiction and storytelling - they're not confined in the way you suggest: we all call on reservoirs of allusion and metaphor all the time, something I would have thought you'd understand as a writer of fiction. The boundaries are very porous, and a lot of children's play depends upon telling stories and make-believe.

More deeply though, I think you're having a really extreme and ideological reaction to something that's basically harmless. It isn't lying, it's a story. Kids aren't hurt by it. You want to worry about kids' welfare, worry about something that actually matters, like poverty or abuse.

And finally given how strongly you feel about the notion of "lying" to children I notice that in your first comment you say you haven't actually disabused your own children of belief in Santa. That being the case, how does our behaviour differ in any tangible sense? Aren't you being a little hypocritical attacking others for behaviour you tolerate in your wife? And if it's such a big deal why do you let her beliefs take precedence? I'm not trying to be unpleasant or aggressive, but I am curious.

James Bradley said...

Sorry - one more thing. The Iraq thing was a response to your statement:

"If anything you need to be defending lying, especially in regards to the precedence and model it creates. There is a larger problem of our society where beliefs trumps truth all the time, to the chagrin of truth, science and for the good of human-kind, sometimes with pretty severe consequences."

I assumed you were suggesting there was a continuity between stories about Santa and larger, more pervasive and often political forms of deceit such as the WMD scandal. If I misunderstood you I apologise.

ColinGavaghan said...

I doubt many kids are deeply traumatised by this particular lie, but there's a dimension to the Santa myth that tugs the tail of my inner egalitarian. Santa brings toys to deserving children, but oddly enough, every single year, the poor kids get less than the kids from the good houses.

Has anyone seriously considered what message this communicates to impressionable young minds? (And don't tell me that kids don't compare xmas presents!)

10z said...

See, I found that having my parents tell me a lie about a supernatural being who knew if I was naughty or nice and would reward me accordingly set me up to recognize that all such stories might very well be lies.

Mike said...

I remember when an older kid at my Sunday School broke the news one Xmas that Santa wasn't real. There was a momentary disappointment and then a flash that it made sense and then I moved on with my young life. The fact that I can still very clearly remember the circumstances nearly 40 years later indicates that the experience of learning something like that had some importance.

The tables were turned in adult life when I allowed my father to believe I was straight (although hoping I was dropping enough clues for him to work it out). When I did come out to him, as I watched the expressions on his face, I remembered my Santa Claus revelation. It was like he was playing back the same experience.

@James Bradley: While I don't have a strong opinion on this, you fail to distinguish between passively allowing children to believe in fantasy characters and allowing them to grow out of it, and actively pushing the story as true. The Santa Claus collusion is a little like DADT for kiddies. Please note I wrote "a little".

James Bradley said...

Mike - I think that's a fair point: as Alexander points out there are some differences between ordinary stories and Santa, which incorporates a fair degree of societal collusion (though I'd argue the differences are probably less clear-cut than he wants to say they are, both for kids and more generally).

But that said, I was never advocating "pushing" the story, just saying I didn't really see the harm in it, and that it wasn't really all that different to a lot of the other imaginary stories kids engage with and enjoy (and it's the fact they enjoy it that seems to be the point of it to me). If my children asked me if it was a story I'd never lie to them, but I don't point out that Shrek is a story either unless they ask, which they usually don't. Which is why I objected to the characterisation of it as lying: it seems to me it's a story, and one they grow out of.

Either way I've probably said all I need to say on the subject, other than to say I basically agree with Alex, and that I struggle to believe kids believing in Santa for a few years is really all that big a deal, either in terms of trauma when they find out he's a myth, or as a case study in critical thinking. Certainly I don't think allowing a four year-old to think Santa brought them a present is going to scar them for life or destroy their trust in other people. For the record I'm also enjoying the irony of finding myself defending a story which basically exists to sell stuff, but we won't go there.

But as I say, I think I've said way more than enough already.

Sarge said...

The Santa figure, to be sure, IS a sort of stand in for a deity, fits all the western/christian criteria, but this one is a bit different.

It makes a demonstrable physical manifestation (at least for YOUNG children) and to some extent, delivers on expectations that the "true" deity can't seem to really pull off.

It is, of course, used as a sort of deity to control behavior at least for a while, the "social coercion" mentioned by one of the posters.
Me and about everyone I've ever encountered has been told as a child by authority types that they "want to be good", said it to our own kids, many of us.
We say this knowing that they, like we did, DON'T want to "be good", they want what THEY want, it may be "good", it may not, so if you can get an edge, well, there it is.

Kids interact with other kids, and the older ones are always out to undermine the younger, and the debunking of Santa actually starts about as soon as the belief itself, at least among them, as I remember.
Doubt is applied almost immediately.

At bottom, I don't think that children are so much concerned with a belief in Santa as an anxiety that the loot might stop when belief in Santa stops.

I've never heard a kid wail about the loss of his red suited "deity" when assured that the presents don't go with Santa.

Matt said...

I really liked Parenting Beyond Belief/The Meming of Life's take on it: http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=4982

It doesn't touch as much on the "ethics of lying to your kid" part, but it does point out how it can be a great lesson in skepticism.

Tyro said...

It's not merely telling kids that Santa exists which is the problem, I think. After all, some parents will tell their kids about Jack Frost and other silliness and when kids are young they happily see magic everywhere and this seems natural and problem-free.

I think the problem is that many adults cling to this lie with a passion. It's suddenly upsetting, dangerous, insulting, or traumatic to tell the kids that Santa doesn't exist. Not traumatic for the kids of course, but for the parents! With that kind of attitude, I wonder what effect it *that* has on their kids. I know it leads to these people throwing hissy fits whenever someone wants to talk about Christmas at a level suited for an eight year old or older.

Mike said...

@Colin wrote "Santa brings toys to deserving children"

Reinforcing the Santa myth for the very young is like an apprenticeship for subsequent belief in supernatural third-parties who will accordingly reward or punish you.

I think kids now get a much more sanitized (Disnified?) version of their folklore than even a generation ago and unless adults are around to engage with kids on these matters, they're essentially abandoning them to quite primitive fears.

Svlad Cjelli said...

In Sweden, the guy often comes to the house and knocks on the front door, so it's different from just being told he came during the night. Sometimes he wears a mask, sometimes it's a normal face with just the big beard. In my case, even the clothes and the procedure were inconsistent.
When I was really very young, I found it jarring and a bit creepy, maybe especially as I liked the character as a motif on various products and in various media.

Another thing about Sweden is that he and his helpers are grouped together with a certain ambiguously diverse class of folklore creatures.
He's one of the fairytale things from the start. On a related note, no clear distinction was made between the stories about Jesus and the other fairytales in my youth. All of them were tales, and all of them were told as if true, though nobody would go beyond a joking manner to defend them as true.

I've tried very hard to believe that he's real, consciously making that effort for many years. Because I'm a fan. But I didn't delude myself; I knew I was being irrational, because I tried to be.

If I'm to parent anything more human than a cat, the only distinctions I'll make between fictions are according to literary standards. Fiction is entertainment, and to be treated as such. Play and critique.

yashwata.info said...

James Bradley said, "Santa is just one of a whole pile of semi-imaginary presences in the lives of small children, but it's one they like and one that brings them a lot of pleasure."

I don't think we know this. As many commenters have been saying, lots of *adults* see it as adorable that kids believe in Santa. (They may also find it "useful," as Bradley says in his next sentence.) But how much *pleasure* does it give children? They love getting presents. Is that joy enhanced by having the presents seem to come from a mysterious bearded guy in a red suit?

My personal memories are of being excited that I would be given some new toys. The idea of Santa did not give me any pleasure that I can recall.

Bradley also espouses a psychological theory in which "listening to stories and imagining them for ourselves" fosters "flexibility of mind, awareness of difference and tolerance, self-reliance," and so on. I am not aware of any evidence for this; in any case, it ignores the fact that most children are not told about Santa Claus as if he is mythical but as if he is a fact.

Anonymous said...

My current favourite approach to dealing with the Santa myth for kids is that espoused by Dale McGowan.

Teach your kids as many world myths as you can, but don't commit either way on whether any of them are real. Especially, put all religions on an equal footing with other myths and legends.

When the children ask questions, don't answer by fiat. Instead, encourage them to figure it out by presenting possibilities and asking them to think about it:

“Some people say the stars are pinholes in a blanket up over the sky at night. What do you think?” “Some people say Thor brings a handful of lightning bolts and throws each one down during a storm. What do you think?” “Some people say Santa's reindeer fly by eating magic corn. What do you think?”

When the kids declare they've figured something out and you know it's wrong, again, don't tell them they're wrong by fiat. Instead, challenge their position with more questions, of the kind they might ask.

Dale's article discussing Santa Clause as the ultimate dry run is recommended reading, as is his approach with siblings who have already figured it out and their interactions with younger siblings.

Deepak Shetty said...

I'd treat Santa like Superman. Everyone including children know that Superman is fiction but it's fun to tie a towel around your neck and jump from one sofa to another shouting "up up and away!"
I don't see why children cant be told Santa is fictional but still participate in the tradition.

critter said...

My earliest memory of Santa was when I was 4 & at a Christmas party. 'Santa' showed up, I asked Mother if Santa wasn't real; she told me he wasn't real but not to tell the other children.
Thanks Mother.
I was never told about the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

Jamie said...

Very interesting discussion. It seems to me untenable to argue either that belief in Santa is deeply emotionally scaring or totally benign. Especially when one wants to generalize to all cases. The value of seeking accounts from various people about their own experiences is precisely that it can reveal that some people may have been hurt by it and some people may have been unaffected or even feel it enhanced their lives. We don't all have the same experiences.

Speaking for myself, I don't think I was terribly harmed by the Santa story itself, not even when including the collusion of adults around me to trick me into believing. But that is certainly not the whole story and, I think, somewhat misses the point. I was not particularly harmed by being told that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, or that black people used to be slaves but are now free and everything is fine. Or that Jesus loves me. Or that our government includes a legislature of wise elders who make laws that are the best for all of us and it is always right to obey all laws without question.

I don't think there is any one lie that by itself did me irreparable harm. But why does harm have to be irreparable to count? My life has certainly been shaped by a multitude of lies and the considerable effort I have had to expend to get myself more or less free of them. I think it is fair to call that a 'harm' even when the ultimate result is that one does get free of them.

One particular lie, such as Santa, might take the heat for a much more widespread culture of misleading young people about reality both physical and social. To be rigorously honest, I would have to say that, no, the Santa lie did not particularly harm me. But to be completely honest I would have to add that the entire fabric of lies that Santa is only a part of, I did find hurtful. At some point while still relatively young I made a conscious decision to be more honest with my kids, were I ever to have any. For me, it's not so much that the Santa thing is a fraud. It's more that I came to place a very high value on honesty and correct information and I despise deceit. The degree to which that is a reactive stance is, I think, a pretty direct measure of how I was hurt by a multitude of deceptions when young.

It is not so much the particular deceptions that are harmful. It is the fact of being massively deceived and the strong social pressure to go along with the deceptions that is ultimately hurtful to young people. The fact that children grow up often without apparent lasting scars does not excuse the practice.

That said, I love Phisicalist's approach. "...when he presses me on whether Santa's real or pretend I tell him he has to figure that out for himself." Brilliant! But that can also backfire. A child might easily resent adults willfully withholding information that they have readily available and that appears to cost them nothing to divulge. It all depends on the context and how it''s done, I think.

Finally, I agree with James Bradley that children are not too concerned with the truth value of stories. Someone already pointed out that a scam is a bit more than a story. I will just add that some adults are kind and some are not. There is potential harm in a story that says you are no good and deserve only coal in your stocking, while other children deserve marvelous toys. Acting out such a story could indeed scar a child. Though I know of no cases in which this has actually been done, I suspect there may be a few...

Sarge said...

I think that a lot of the ambivilence about "Santa Claus" (as opposed to the bishop of Myra) has a lot to do with when the kid stops believing.
That's a sign that the child is maturing, is beginning to think and evaluate for himself, and is shedding his naivety. Tough for some parents to observe. Whole 'nother dynamic is about to present itself.

I always discouraged "magical thinking" in my sons, but kids minds are still developing, and they make sense of things somewhat differently than adults. Things get explained that way whether we will or no in a child's mind.

But take heart!
I lived in Alabama thirty to forty years ago, and we used to find stone tools and projectile points where we lived. My oldest son, then four years old, was rooting about and found a beautiful quartz arrow head, it had been meticulously shaped, notched, it was a work of art.
I have been making points myself since my teen years (flint-knapping is, believe it or not, a relaxing hobby)so I know what he had...still has.
We went home on leave to Virginia, and were talking to one of my parent's neighbors, an archeologist and anthropologist, and he saw it, and as he knew I did 'knapping he asked me to come in and demonstrate for a couple of his classes. He insisted I bring my son and his arrowhead.

Bear with me, Santa makes an appearance...
But, while I was working, he had my son explain what I was doing and why, and at the end of each class had him display his own arrow head and asked him about it.
Son explained fluting, pressure flaking, bulb of percussion, etc.
Prof asked about who made his and did he know how old it was. Son told him that the Creek indians had made it a long time ago, and come in the night and hidden it for him to find.
Everyone hooted, of course, but the prof didn't.
He asked my son how long ago was breakfast: a long, long, time ago.
Who else came in the night and left nice things?
Santa, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny were named.

Prof said that this notion was actually pretty smart, based on his assessments and what he knew and understood at the time. He had the technical know-how, even actual understanding, but not the strength to make a stone tool, and he knew how surprising, good things came. Native Americans joined the ranks of these beings. He actually knew several native Americans, in fact.

But he postulted that this viewpoint was a necessary step in his developement, and as soon as he got new data and developed himself, he would, unless he was frightened by change and/or stupid, reassess his model of entities that brought treasures in the night to one that was more accurate.

I think it's the same with most imaginary beings, they're held to as long as there is a percieved need.
I'm an atheist who has been in combat and wounded, now I have cancer, mid stage, and I can see where the need for a belief in something "magical" is attractive. Many of the people around me are desperate for it.

I admit, I often wish I COULD have believed in a Santa or a deity that cared, or any deity at all that would see me through.

But...there ain't no Santa Claus, just what is. Let them enjoy it while they are capable of it.

Anonymous said...

The gradual realization that Santa is a myth can prepare children to consider the myth of religion and whether it offers anything positive. Seems to me that most kids over six have confined Santa in the fiction section. Sadly, many over six cling to the nonsense that is religious belief.

Jamie said...

I was not terribly harmed by the Santa story per se, not even when including the collusion of adults to trick me into believing. But that somewhat misses the point. I was not particularly harmed by being told that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, or that black people used to be slaves but are now free and everything is fine. Or that Jesus loves me. Or that our government has a legislature of wise elders who make laws that are in the best interest of us all and it is always right to obey all laws without question.

There is no one lie that did me irreparable harm. But why does harm have to be irreparable to count? My life was shaped by a multitude of lies and the considerable effort I expended to get myself more or less free of them. I think it is fair to call that a 'harm' even when the ultimate result is that one does get free of them.

The Santa lie might take the heat for a much more widespread culture of misleading young people about reality, both physical and social. No, the Santa lie did not particularly harm me. But the fabric of lies that Santa is only a part of, I did find hurtful. At some relatively young age I decided to be more honest with my kids, were I ever to have any.

It's not so much that Santa is a fraud. It's more that I came to place a very high value on honesty and to despise deceit. The degree to which that is a reactive stance is, I think, a pretty direct measure of how a multitude of deceptions hurt me. It is not necessarily the case with other people.

It is not the particular deceptions that are harmful. It is the fact of being massively deceived and the strong social pressure to go along with the deceptions. The fact that children grow up often without apparent lasting scars does not excuse the practice.

Beyond that, I see little value in the story itself. It is patriarchal, authoritarian and Victorian in values. Crafted to encourage obedience and compliance rather than cooperation and initiative and to stimulate commerce rather than thoughtful relationships. Not my cup of tea. We have much better stories we can tell our children.

ColinGavaghan said...

I would also wonder about the effects of the implicit threat that admitting to non-belief will bring an end to the rewards. Indulging credulity in little kids is one thing, positively rewarding it may be something else.

Stewart said...

I don't see the big problem here as being with the disappointment/disillusionment. Kids have to cope with that on myriad levels all the time as they grow up. I cannot fathom what must go through the head of an adult who feels it important to convince a child that something is true that that adult knows for certain is not so and that the child must one day learn this. Someone earlier said it's all for the adults anyway, but I still don't see why it would ever be important to them.

I have a 4-year-old son and what is important is getting through to him what the difference is between mere naughtiness and life-threatening naughtiness to do with things like traffic, fire and electricity. Largely for that reason, establishing what is and is not true does become a priority. Sometimes in answer to some question about the natural world, I'll give him an answer that sounds counter-intuitive (e.g. recently, in answer to "how does a rocket melt?" I explained the heat generated by friction, including the fact that there can be friction with something invisible such as air) and if it sounds odd, his first reaction is often "that's a joke." He's learned that if I assure him it isn't, I'm really not pulling his leg. He has an idea of the difference between stories that are fiction and those that really happened. He will sometimes tell me outlandish things and qualify them with "in play." Santa Claus being real hasn't really come up, though he knows in at least one instance who was inside a costume. I'm sure I could make him believe there was such a character, but why on earth would I wish to abuse the constructive trust that has developed? What would it give either me or him? The stories he has heard include some in which god is a character and he knows both that I don't believe god is real and that many grown-ups do. It would be wrong of me to withhold either piece of information from him.

Shaun said...

I do think some are really overthinking the issue here.

Kids have rich fantasy lives that they grow out it. Or, if like me, just read lots of sci fi etc when they are older.

I see nothing wrong with an atheist/skeptical parent letting their child believe in Santa. Mine believes in Santa and fairies (she is a few months shy of 4). She'll grow out of it. It is just part of developing an imagination.

But if she asks questions as parents (The Beloved is of Anglican persuasion) we answer honestly and explain as best we can.

The other day she asked about why beetles are so small and we had a very low level discussion about evolution that enthralled her.

I was a proud dad after that one.

ColinGavaghan said...

Apologies if anyone has already posted this link:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081208180345.htm

'More than 22 percent in the 1896 study admitted to being disappointed compared with 39 percent in the 1979 study. But only 2 percent and 6 percent, respectively, felt betrayed.'

Interesting final sentence, though.

Sarge said...

Me an' you, Shaun, me an' you!

Actually, my sons, when they DID believe, saw christmas as a process, or I guess, a phenomenon, and Santa as a part of that process/phenom.

The 25 December added some confusion, as it was "Baby Jesus' Birthday"...and is also MY birthday. My sons asked about this rather contrary (to them) set of facts in a gathering of people. They compared these two bits of data, looked at one another, looked at me in some wonder, and said, "Dad! YOU were Baby Jesus"??!!
Even then I was known for my atheistic views, and...Well, the laughter went on for a good fifteen minutes, since people had been eating and drinking there was a bit of a mess to clean up, no one choked to death, but a couple of ladies left because of the woman bladder/pressure thing...

Santa was actually a little easier to deal with, on reflection...

But, they seemed to think of Yuletide as a sort of processs and "cargo cult" thing.

After Thansgiving, certain music was played, songs heard that only appeared once a year, and decorations in public appeared, and the stores looked different. There was this somewhat ubiquitous man who was unlike any other, only seen certain places "in the flesh" but representations were all over. You put up a tree, hung stuff on it, put out certain decorations, and at a certain point, possibly BECAUSE of this activity, you woke up on the 25th to find that presents had come from this Santa entity. But it was all part of a great process.

Then, after New Years (whetever THAT was all about) it all disappeared!

As I get older I'm beginning to think they had a better handle on it than we all knew.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"Teach your kids as many world myths as you can, but don't commit either way on whether any of them are real. Especially, put all religions on an equal footing with other myths and legends."

Thank you, anon, for a much more concise phrasing.

Tyro said...

My earliest memory of Santa was having a discussion with my Mom. I was saying how silly it was to think that Santa was real and she had a strange, upset look and kept shushing me and saying "no, no, it's all real." Thing was, I knew she was lying to me and I started feeling upset that she was playing this silly game which I didn't understand and she didn't appear to believe in either.

Apart from that, Christmases were all quite nice. For years my parents persisted in writing "from Santa" on their gifts but we kids could tell their handwriting apart and would thank them anyway. I think that continued on until I was well into my teens which seems very strange to think of now.

I've got to wonder if this Santa myth is more for the parents than the kids.

Steven Paul Leiva said...

I'm an atheist who loves Christmas. I really do, it's "my favorite time of the year," and all that. But, of course, the Christmas I like is: Winter wonderland (despite growing up and living in Los Angeles), Bing Crosby, Dickens, colorful decorations, presents under the tree, egg nog, sappy holiday movies with messages I don't really believe but love to feel, filling out Christmas cards with Christmas music on the stereo, gleefully tapping my toes to the secular songs, willfully ignoring the lyrics of the religious songs, and -- Santa Claus. I love images of the jolly old guy and aspire to be him, as long as there are elves to clean up the reindeer poop. The reality is I celebrate not Christmas but Clausmas, for Santa is my savior! So go ahead, lie to the little buggers if it teaches them something about generosity and giving and thinking of others. Being little buggers, though, all they probably care about it what’s in it for them, so any trauma they feel when they find out Santa isn’t real is probably well deserved.

Stewart said...

Well, I discussed this blog post with my four-year-old at dinner and am none the wiser for it.

Ani Sharmin said...

My family doesn't celebrate Christmas (since they're Muslim) so I didn't think Santa Claus was real. However, I did like the story and enjoyed seeing some of the Christmas-themed movies that usually come out around this time of year. (I remember enjoying the 1998 movie "I'll Be Home For Christmas". I would have been 10 years old at the time.)

I never understood why it couldn't just be told as a fun story, instead of parents pretending to their kids that it's real. To me, it didn't really take away the fun and magic just because it was a story.

Ophelia Benson said...

I'm late to this, but for the record, I did resent the lie when I was a kid. I did think of it as a lie and I did resent it. I remember doing the resenting. I resented being fooled; I resented it that everyone knew it was a lie and went on saying it was true anyway. I think it's very glib to assume it's no big deal. No, I don't still "carry around pain" but it was a serious, as it were adult kind of resentment.