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Do Parents Who Tell Their Kids About Santa End Up On The Naughty List?

by David Kyle Johnson
15 December 2015
SOCIETY, RELATIONSHIPS AND CULTURE
Kids, stop reading now – Santa's watching!
 
Parents worry at Christmas time. What do the kids want from Santa? Can we afford it? Do they still believe? David Kyle Johnson thinks there’s a more important question – should we lie to kids about Santa Claus at all?

Most adults know Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Yet most parents try convince their children he does and try keep them believing for as long as they can. They use bad evidence and ridiculous explanations to encourage kids to believe because it’s comforting or fun.
 
Is the Santa lie immoral? Does it teach poor critical thinking skills? Perhaps, but let’s put the philosophical questions aside.
 
As a parent, I have other concerns. Is the fact that children thank Santa and not their parents for their gifts problematic? Should Santa be used as a disciplinary threat? Does it really encourage imagination? Does lying to my child about Santa threaten my child's view of how trustworthy I am? All in all, is lying to children about Santa good parenting practice?
 
I don’t think it is. It’s not that I’d be a bad parent if I did lie to my children about Santa. I’d be a better parent if I didn’t. Here’s why:
 
First, children who believe in Santa thank him for their presents instead of their parents. It might seem selfish for a parent to desire such appreciation, but children need to learn to give it. What's more, making your child believe the gifts you buy them come from someone else defeats the primary function of gift giving. As a theologian recently reminded me, gifts are the giver's way of showing the recipient that he or she has worth and is loved. Children need assurance their parents see them as worthwhile and valuable – not Santa Claus.
 
Second, as even defenders of the lie agree, Santa shouldn’t be used as a disciplinary threat. “Though lying [about Santa] can be an awfully convenient parenting crutch . . . it’s generally best to keep it to a minimum”. Yet that’s exactly how many parents use the Santa lie.
I don't give out bonus points to my students for attending class. Why should we reward children for a mere lack of misbehaviour?  

It's perfectly acceptable to train children to do the right thing by rewarding good behavior and punishing the bad – but the Santa lie doesn’t do this. It promises lavish reward for a simple lack of misbehaviour.
 
"Stop hitting your sister or Santa won’t bring you anything.”
 

I don't give out bonus points to my students for attending class. Why should we reward children for a mere lack of misbehaviour?  
 
Third, lying about Santa doesn’t encourage imagination – it stifles it. You can’t pretend something is true if you already believe it is. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it, “If believing in Santa was an exercise in imagination, every kid would believe in a different Santa”. By tricking children into actually believing Santa exists we rob them of the opportunity to imagine he does.
 
Consider how one mother who emailed me approaches Christmas with her children:
 

We have ‘played the Christmas game’ with [our children] every year. My husband and I purchase the gifts and wrap them in secret, and we place them under the tree on Christmas Eve when the kids are asleep. We talk about Santa coming and what he'll bring… Heck, we even have an Elf on the Shelf that the kids adore. We try to think of different (crazy!) ways that Santa and the Elf come into the house, or cover the whole world in one night.
 
Maybe they have a spaceship? Maybe Santa multiplies? ... We visit Santa at malls and the kids just LOVE telling him what they want for Christmas. But the kids know the truth 100%. That is very important for us. They know it just like my husband and I do, they just enjoy PRETENDING that they don't. As my daughter, who's 7, said "I know Santa isn't real but I like believing in him”.

 
To encourage imagination, we should pretend along with them – suspending our disbelief whilst also being aware the story we’re telling is imaginary. It is possible to merge both truth and storytelling as a parent.
 
My final worry is simple – trust. Finding out their parents have lied to them about Santa Claus can cause children to think their parents are lying to them about a great many other things. Not always of course, but some children are more susceptible than others. It’s perhaps even more of a risk than many parents realise.
 
I’ve collected countless stories about the moment children learn the truth. Many were not only embarrassed or outright livid, but actually began to distrust their parents. Recently, one man told me the moment he realised his parents had lied about Santa, was also the moment he concluded that his parents must have also been lying to him about Jesus and God. He’s an atheist still today.
 
To encourage imagination, we should pretend along with them. It is possible to merge both truth and storytelling as a parent.

In reality, the tradition of tricking children into believing Santa literally exists is only about 200 years old. It was popularised after the idea that St Nicholas breaks into the house while the children are asleep to deliver presents was invented by Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas in 1823. It did not describe an already existing tradition.
 
The idea was sold to us by rich New Yorkers and business for various reasons – mainly financial – but I think it’s high time that we gave it up. It’s not that we should eliminate the Santa myth from our Christmas traditions entirely but tricking our children into literally believing Santa actually exists needs to stop. Not only is it bad parenting, but as many parents who avoid the lie have made clear to me, it is in no way necessary for holiday fun or Christmas magic.  

 
David Kyle Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Myths that Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back). Image: GoToVan | Flickr