I know it's Spring and no one wants to be thinking of christmas this time of year, but my friend Joe sent me a paper called Ho, Ho, Hoax: The Case against Santa Claus by Ernâni Magalhães, Visiting Assistant Professor at WVU. It makes some excellent points which really got me thinking.

Before I read this paper, I thought Dale McGowan's take on Santa to be the best way to handle it. In a nutshell, he says Santa is a dry run for letting kids reason their way through the fact that Santa is a myth, to then figuring out that religion is mythical, as he puts it, Santa is "the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind". It makes sense in a way. But then my friend Joe told me about his experience as a kid.

Joe really believed in Santa, the Easter Bunny, etc. Then one day a kid in the playground told him it was all a pack of lies. Joe believed him and went home crying. He was devastated. When Joe and I talked about the McGowan philosophy of Santa, I figured out that in theory it seems like a great idea, but maybe in practice it could backfire and cause a lot of unhappiness and pain for kids who don't get to reason it out for themselves but are told by other children.

And is it necessary to lie to children about a mythical jolly old fat man? Does it increase their happiness, improve their moral fiber? Does it make them better little people, or better adults down the line? And is there an alternative to lying about Santa?

First, there are 3 alternatives, according to Ernâni:

  • Disbelief: The parent tells the child Santa Claus is not real

  • Neutrality: The parent does not inform the child one way or the other

  • Pretense: The parent invites the child to pretend there is a Santa Claus.(page 13)

...inviting to pretend there is a Santa Claus is morally superior to encouraging to believe. (14)

I never thought of this as an option, but it makes sense. You get all the good fun of Santa but you don't get the lies and beliefs in those lies.

What about short term pleasure and pain? Here is what Ernâni has to say:

The extent to which the pleasure of children and adults justifies the Santa Claus lie depends on the amount of pleasure available from non-deceitful alternatives. The alternative that most closely replicates telling children there is a Santa Claus involves inviting children to pretend there is one. Although pretending something is real is fundamentally different from believing it is, as I have argued, many of the emotions evoked by an object believed to be real are also evoked by objects supposed to be fictional. Children and adults derive great pleasure from creatures of their imaginations, as witnessed by the large crowds at movie theaters. Children who are old enough to know she is fictional still derive great enjoyment from the pretense that Cinderella is a real person with real hopes. And, it is easy to replicate the gift-giving aspect of the Santa experience, which is surely a significant factor in the child’s enjoyment. (15-16)

Interesting and thought-provoking, don't you think? This is even more important:

One reason the justification of the lie cannot be a matter of the short term pleasure is that the purpose of parenting is not only or even primarily to maximize children’s happiness and minimize their suffering. A major purpose of proper parenting is to foster the child’s moral and cognitive development. Much more important than whether Santa belief is conducive to happiness in the short term is the question whether it is conducive to a child’s moral and cognitive development. (17)

How true! It's all about raising a child to be moral and to think for themselves throughout their lives. So it isn't just the short term gain you need to think about, but the long term consequences.

Here is where I really agree with Ernâni:

When parents tell their children about Santa Claus they encourage belief, not imagination. (17) Evidently, insofar as increased imagination is supposed to be what is gained through the Santa Claus experience, this can be much more effectively pursued by having the child pretend that Santa is real, rather than believe he is. (18)

Perhaps belief in Santa Claus is beneficial in that it fosters a “sense of magic” and “magical . . . thought” (Breen 2004). A magical occurrence, in the sense in question, would seem to be one which violates the laws of ordinary reality. Why should it be beneficial for a child to believe that there are things that work in unheard of ways? (18)

The similarity between the child’s belief in Santa and adult religious belief has been widely acknowledged. Children often think of Santa as having many of the same characteristics as God, to the extent that upon discovering the truth about Santa, some children question the existence of God as well.

The resemblance between the child’s attitude toward Santa and religious belief is only an advantage of belief if encouraging this sort of religious belief is beneficial. (20)

An excellent point! Why would any secular parent need to teach a child to believe in physics-breaking, supernatural magical beings at all? One thing I was thinking as I read this; wouldn't it also sow a seed of doubt into that child that their parents lied to them about Santa? What else have they lied about?

If religious conviction is essentially belief in the absence of evidence, then the child’s attitude toward Santa is not religious conviction. Again, the child has ample testimonial and other evidence for the existence of Santa. (21)

A plausible inference for the child to draw from the entire experience is a certain skepticism about claims of the existence of unseen things: once bitten, twice shy. And insofar as encouraging belief in Santa encourages belief in the absence of and contrary to perceptual evidence, the supposed advantage must be weighed against the tendency of the child who discovers the truth to infer that believing in things in the absence of evidence is a hazardous affair. (21-22)

I would also like to add, many millions and millions of kids who once believed in Santa never extend the thought process to then doubt God or Jesus. They figure out that Santa is a myth but never take that lesson any further to realize God is too. So it's not a safe bet.

Ernâni makes a great point about morality and Santa:

Although Santa is still supposed to observe whether children are naughty or nice, this activity is rarely emphasized. And, importantly, it is extremely rare for parents to follow through on the traditional threat that Santa will not give presents to naughty children. Hardly any American child in the last twenty years has found a lump of coal in his stocking from Santa Claus. This is, interestingly, one of the few aspects of the tradition that has earned the condemnation of childhood psychologists. (22)

Does the concept that Santa, who the child admires, single-mindedly fulfills that child's wishes translate to a child being more generous themselves? I don't think so. Neither does Ernâni:

Nothing in the experience encourages the child to give. The child’s primary role in the ritual is as recipient. Indeed, a child who might otherwise feel inclined to do a generous deed for other children is apt to think that Santa will take care of their needs. The tradition does include the cookies and milk for Santa. But this is a rather limited generosity, applying as it does only to someone who has done very nice things for the child. Nothing in the behavior points to the importance of being generous to people in general. (23)

What are the alternatives to lying to a child about Santa then, if the goal is to teach generosity?

One non-deceitful thing that might be done to encourage the child to be generous is to tell the child about the importance of generosity. One might encourage the child to give things to others. One might reward the child for doing generous things. In the right circumstances, such encouragement is known to lead to greater degrees of the tendency encouraged. Indeed, such a direct method promises a much higher likelihood of success than the roundabout method of encouraging the child to adopt Santa as a role model. (23)

What an amazing concept! Just teach a child directly without subterfuge!

Now, if the child is taught to just pretend in Santa, what do you teach that child about the beliefs of other children?

Any parent who decides not to encourage belief in Santa faces the question of how the child ought to discuss the issue with children who believe. If it is possible to teach formerly believing children the importance of discretion concerning Santa belief, then it is similarly possible to teach children who never believe the importance of discretion concerning believers. Children who are not told there is a Santa can easily be told that other children are told and that it is important not to ruin their fun by denying his existence. (24)

Ernâni then explains his main reason why it's not good to lie to children about Santa:

The main problem with lying to children about Santa Claus is that it encourages children to lie. The encouragement happens because children inevitably discover that there is no Santa Claus. And although apparently some children at first believe that parents are similarly under the misimpression that there is a Santa Claus, eventually children discover that they have been deceived. As lately noted, when they discover the truth children are encouraged not to divulge the truth to other children and also to lie to them. Also when children discover that they have been lied to, they reasonably infer that such lying is held to be permissible by their parents and other adults whose opinion they hold in high regard. (25)

The first step involves the child’s discovery that the parent has lied. It cannot be seriously maintained that children do not discover that deceit has taken place. Children of seven or eight understand what is involved in lying. And eventually children understand that although their parents told them otherwise, the parents do not believe there is a Santa Claus. Children therefore
become aware of two facts, both of which tend to encourage the child to lie. First, their parents (and many other adults) lie. Whether children imitate Santa Claus is questionable, but they undoubtedly imitate their parents. Since they observe and are aware of their parents lying, they are more likely to lie themselves. Second, their parents (and many other adults) believe that it is morally appropriate to lie. Children notice that their parents feel no moral qualm about having deceived the children about Santa Claus. It is evident to the child that the parent believes so deceiving the child was morally appropriate. (26)

...notice that the deceit about Santa Claus is part of a larger pattern: the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, being the two main other culprits. Together with these other incidents, the child is likely to draw the inference that lying is thought to be permissible in many cases beyond the Santa Claus situation. (27)

While I think that lying is a major flaw in teaching kids about Santa, I personally feel the worst part is teaching kids that a magical being gives them presents. I think all the points Ernâni makes are extremely important, and that together they make a strong case for simply encouraging children to pretend instead of lying to them.

What do you think?

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