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Philosophy and pop culture

Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie

Can lying to your children about Santa be excused in the name of imagination?

Parents often feel a twinge of guilt when they lie to their children about Santa Claus. But in her article, “The Santa Lie: Is the Christmas Con Hurting our Kids?Slate author Melinda Wenner Moyerbut argues that the Santa lie “belongs in the ‘good lie’ pile.”  There is no need for guilt, she says, “because parents invoke him for their kids’ sake.” I disagree. We need to pay attention to that twinge of guilt to steer us clear of immoral and potentially dangerous behavior.

I first argued this in 2009, in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, entitled “Sorry, Virginia,” I suggested the Santa Lie should be avoided for three reasons. (1) It’s an unjustified lie, (2) it risks damaging your parental trustworthiness and (3) it encourages credulity and ill-motivated behavior. One of the arguments people made in response—amidst an unbelievable amount of hate mail I recieved, which you can see here—was essentially the argument that Moyerbut presents.  The Santa lie promotes imagination, and imagination is good for kids. As Moyerbut puts it, “What Kris Kringle does…is feed the imagination” and a “type of imaginative play that sparks creativity, social understanding and even—strange as it may sound—scientific reasoning.” (And her same argument has been repeated by like minded fans of Santa in defense of the Santa Claus lie, again and again and again…and again.)

Of course, Moyerbut is right about the benefits of imagination. What she (and the others who makes similar arguments) fail to recognize, however, is that the thing she is defending—The Santa Lie—does not actually promote imagination or imaginative play. Imagination involves pretending, and to pretend that something exists, one has to believe that thing doesn’t exist. Does the Christian “imagine” that Jesus rose from the dead? Does the Muslim “imagine” that Muhammad’s rode his horse Barack (Al Boraq) at lightening speed from Mecca to Jerusalem and then assended into heaven? Of course not; they believe these things are true. Tricking a child into literally believing that Santa exists doesn’t encourage imagination, it actually stifles it. If you really want to encourage imagination in your children, tell them that Santa doesn’t exist, but that you are going to pretend like he does anyway on Christmas morning.

Lots of children “play act” like they are Santa, and that does require imagination. But you don’t have to trick them into believing that Santa is real in order for them to play that way—just as you don’t have to trick them into thinking that Star Trek is real in order for them to pretend to explore alien planets in the back yard.

Moyerbut recognizes the worry that your children might develop trust issues when they realize that you have lied to them, but she argues that such worries are ill-founded. When they learn the truth, on average at around 8 she suggests, they know the difference between good and bad lies and will see it as a good lie. Consequently, they won’t resent you, think lying is always acceptable, or reject their religious beliefs.

While Moyerbut is right that many children suffer no ill effects from learning the truth, she is wrong that none do. In “Against the Santa-Claus Lie: The Truth We Should Tell our Children” (Chapter twelve in Scott Lowe’s Christmas and Philosophy) I document some horrific stories about the “big moment”—stories that show discovering the truth about Santa is often not with consequences--everything from the erosion of parental authority and trust to turning a child into an atheist. For example, Jay defended Santa’s existence in front of his whole class on the mere basis that his “mother wouldn’t lie” to him, only to read the encyclopedia entry on Santa in front of the whole class and simultaneously discover that she indeed would. When little Tennille realized that the reason she didn’t always get what she asked Santa for was that he didn’t exist, she figured that God’s non-existence was the best explanation for why her prayers also went unanswered. I’m not saying that this happens to all kids; I am saying it’s a possibility. If you are religious, I doubt it's a possibility you would willingly invite. Of course, if you are an atheist, you might like that the Santa lie does this. But there are even more reasons for not liking the Santa lie--reasons that should resonatequite quite loundly with everyone (espeically atheists).

Moyerbut suggests that Santa encourages “Fantasy play [that] forces kids to think through hypothetical or counterfactual scenarios, which bolsters their reasoning skills.” Again, it’s not Santa belief itself that does this; simply telling them the story but admitting it’s not really true would suffice—just like it does for all other fairy tales we tell our children. But any positive effect Santa belief had in this regard would be completely counteracted and outweighed by the negative effects of what is necessary to keep the belief going. Don’t get me wrong, children need to learn how to reason effectively and think critically, and I applaud Moyerbut for encouraging parents to promote this. But encouraging your children to literally believe the Santa lie is the last thing that encourages critical thinking and effective reasoning in children.

Think about what many parents do to keep kids believing. When a child brings doubts, parents often encourage the child to stifle those doubts and continue believing: “Just believe what you want to. After all, isn’t that more fun?” They will sometimes plant false evidence (or show terrible fake “scientific” documentaries that do so), make up faux ad hoc explanations, or—worst of all—just say “he’s magic.” But all these things are directly contrary to what parents who want to develop critical thinking in their children should do. Stifling doubt, believing based on desire (instead of evidence), being convinced by bad evidence, being fooled by ad-hoc explanations, and appealing to magic—these are all “bad habits of lazy thinking” that I have to drive out of my critical thinking students every semester. And, not surprisingly, the students in which these bad habits are most deeply entrenched are often those who believed in Santa for too long—far beyond 8 year old (sometimes into their teens!).

If your children already believe in Santa, then there is one piece of advice from Moyerbut that I endorse: Turn their experience of learning the truth into a critical thinking exercise; try to get them to figure it out on their own with solid reasoning.

If you are still deciding what to tell your children, however, decide now to tell them the truth. After all, as Moyerbut tells says, “Though lying can be an awfully convenient parenting crutch…it’s generally best to keep it to a minimum, both to develop trust between yourself and your child and to lead by example.” She’s right! She’s just wrong that December is a time for an exception to this rule. And if you are worried about what your kids might tell other children, just teach them seven simple words: “At our house, Santa is just pretend.”

David Kyle Johnson

Copyright, 2012

Kyle's book, The Myths that Stole Christmas, is now available for pre-order.

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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