At this time of year in many places around the world there are children excited about the magic of Christmas. I don’t know the numbers to compare but there are a good few, mainly adults I suspect, who say “Bah humbug!” While I was once a firm believer in the magic and did my best to keep it alive, I now tread warily, unsure of how best to approach this topic. As a parent I didn’t get it right so can offer no wisdom of my own.
After many years of seeming to go along with the story, long after I thought it should have been abandoned, Daughter finally questioned why, if the stories weren’t true, would parents lie to their children. She preceded her question with the request to not say if it was true or not, she just wanted to know why parents would lie.
I let her down on both counts. I told her the truth of the story and couldn’t explain why parents would lie. I’m not sure that I’ve been forgiven for either failing, and I have never stopped thinking about what may have been a better way of handling the situation if I was ever offered the opportunity for a do-over.
Interestingly I don’t recall having any similar concerns about my parents lying or disillusionment on finding out the truth. Daughter’s older brother voiced no concerns either, but I cannot be certain whether or not he had any. Until now when, with children of his own, the issue again is raised.
At first Son’s intention was to not engage in Santa stories; but with one child at school and the other in kindy the situation becomes more complex. The children are more exposed to the stories through friends and organized events and there is the concern about “spoiling” things for other families. Caught between the pressures of a shared popular culture and the questions of intelligent, critical thinking children, the parents must make a decision. I sympathize and wish them better success than I experienced. I have suggested to Son that he consult his sister. She knows better than I about this one and can maybe help him avoid making the mistakes with his children that I made with her.
There is a lot of well-intentioned advice on the internet, but the value of some is debatable. Many explain the Santa story as being about love, kindness and generosity, and the magic as the assistance given by many helpers, including parents, throughout the world. Many explanations are likely based on the famous response, Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus, to an 8-year old’s letter, the authenticity of which has been questioned.
Some of the explanations and stories encountered recently include:
As much as I love the sentiments of these stories, they don’t really help me with my truth or lie dilemma. So I returned to a post by philosopher Michelle Sowey HO HO HO! (Q.E.D.) in which she questioned the ethics of the Santa lie. I shared this post previously in April 2014. Michelle agrees that the attempt at compromise in many of the explanations, “It’s Santa, Jim, but not as we know him”, is unsatisfactory because:
- the historical figure St Nicholas is omitted
- Christmas for most children is more about receiving than giving
- of a conviction that children should be encouraged to believe in things that are real (visible or invisible, tangible or intangible) and to disbelieve in things that aren’t (all of which are invisible), and
- it is better to develop critical thinking than to believe in intangible things.
“Parents can be powerful advocates for their children’s intellectual autonomy. They can help their kids to draw their own well-reasoned conclusions; to value coherence and logical consistency (among other things) in the construction of their worldviews; and to cleave to their beliefs with a level of confidence proportional to the amount and quality of evidence available.
With a little analysis and reflection – perfectly accessible to an eight-year-old – it’s clear that believing in things without good evidence often means believing in things that aren’t true.”
Okay. We agree on that, but how would a parent extricate themselves from the myth once they have become entangled?
When I re-read her post I noticed Michelle has, just this month, added a postscript linking to an article by ethicist David Kyle Johnson who asks the question DO PARENTS WHO TELL THEIR KIDS ABOUT SANTA END UP ON THE NAUGHTY LIST?
David says that parents who lie to their children by supporting the myth are not necessarily bad parents (thank you!) but they would be better parents if they didn’t.
He adds to Michelle’s list with these:
- Children should thank their parents, who have purchased and sacrificed, not Santa; “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.”
- Santa shouldn’t be used as a threat e.g. stop doing that (bad behaviour) or Santa won’t come
- It stifles imagination because you can’t pretend if you believe: “By tricking children into actually believing Santa exists we rob them of the opportunity to imagine he does.”
- And the big one: the loss of 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.” He says it is probably a bigger risk than most parents realize.
David says that the tradition of Santa and gift giving is relatively recent and “sold” to consumers primarily for financial reasons. He urges parents to stop tricking their children into believing the myth. My experience supports that, and I wonder how I would go about it if I had the opportunity again.
This week at the Carrot Ranch Charli Mills challenges writers to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about “spreading the light.” While she suggests it could be used it to honor or memorialize a loved one, I thought I would attempt to shed light on the Santa myth and its potential for harm. Hopefully it’s not too far off the mark as I always loved, and protected, this myth; but perhaps a decision to protect the intelligence and critical thinking of my loved ones, and children in general, is even more important.
“What shall we read tonight?” asked Dad.
Jimmy searched the shelf for something he hadn’t heard before. There weren’t many. Suddenly he found one, slid it off the shelf and nestled into Dad’s lap.
“Twas the night before Christmas …” began Dad.
“Who…, what…, where…, why…, how…,?” began Jim, marveling at flying reindeer and pondering possible destinations.
As Dad closed the book Jimmy was ready with his usual question, “Is it true?”
“What think you?”
“As true as a fire-breathing dragon, a flower-petal fairy, and a talking animal,” laughed Jim; then added, “But you know, parrots really can talk!”
For whichever December festival you celebrate, and in whichever way you celebrate it, I wish you peace, joy and love enough to light up your world.
Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.