I have taken a stance against the parental habit of lying to children about Santa Claus numerous times (in 2009, 2010 and 2012), and I was recently interviewed regarding my objections to the elf on a shelf. What’s my argument? It’s a lie, it degrades your parental trustworthiness, it encourages credulity, it does not encourage imagination, and it’s equivalent to bribing your kids for good behavior. (If you’d like to see an animated version of such arguments, click here.) Well, ‘tis the season—which means my inbox is filling up with hate mail again. (As you can imagine, my argument generates some vitriol. If blog views are any indication, it’s almost as controversial as gun regulation.) So I thought I would take this opportunity to reply to the most common objections and comments that I see against not telling the Santa Claus lie.
Objection 1: So I guess we're just not supposed to tell our children any stories, let them watch any movies or read any fictional books?
No, I’m saying that when we tell our children stories, we should not lie or trick them into thinking they are literally true. I'm a huge fan of all kinds of fiction, but when my son asks me whether or not Star Wars really happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” I'm not going to tell him it did. I'm not even going to tell him it could have. And I’m not going to say that “Luke Skywalker exists as the Jedi in us all.” I'm going to tell him what you would tell him: it's just a story.
I'm simply saying that we should treat the Santa Claus story just like we treat all other stories—as a story. To do otherwise would be to cruelly take advantage of the child's naïveté and possibly hinder his/her intellectual development.
Objection 2: My kids run around the house pretending like they’re superheroes and princesses. So, according to you, I guess I'm just supposed to correct them and tell them they're just ordinary kids?
No. That is just imaginary play and imaginary play is wonderful. As I have pointed out before, a parent who tells the Santa Claus lie does not invite the child to imagine or play like Santa Claus exists, but to believe that he really does. These are two completely different things.
If your son was running around the house with a towel tied around his neck claiming he could fly because he was Superman, you would say "that's great." You know he's just pretending. However, if he climbed out on the roof and started claiming this, you would correct him quite promptly. You don't want him really literally believing that he can fly.
Objection 3: Yep, I guess we should just never lie to our children and introduce them to the dog eat dog nature of the real world and let them be eaten alive as soon as we can.
This is just a strawman of my argument—or perhaps a slippery slope objection. Obviously, the fact that certain lies are not okay to tell your children doesn’t mean that it is never okay to lie to them, and the fact that we should tell them the truth about one thing (e.g., Santa) doesn’t mean that we should tell them the truth about everything.
Objection 4: I encourage my children to believe in Santa, and keep them believing for as long as I can, because it makes them happy, just like it made me happy when I was a kid. We all believe in things that don’t really make sense because they make us feel happy and comfortable.
No we don’t. This objection actually helps me make my point. I’ve been struck my how many parents think it’s perfectly fine, even for adults, to believe something is true simply because one wants to—because it’s comforting or fun. And they even admit they think this because this is why they believed the Santa Claus lie as a child. When I say that the Santa Lie encourages credulity, what I mean is that it encourages the formation of belief based on convenience, rather than good reason and evidence. (And the reason I’m concerned about credulity is because of its dangers.) The more hate mail I receive, the more I’m struck by how many adults still have childish belief forming habits—and the more I’m convinced that the Santa Lie is a major contributing factor.
Objection 5: So according to you I'm a terrible parent. Who are you to judge? It's just a matter of parental preference.
No, I'm not saying you are a terrible parent. Whether or not you are a good parent depends on multiple factors, and I have no idea how you size up. And, in all honestly, if you love your kids and do your best, you’re probably a good parent. But not everything is a matter of preference. Some parental practices are worse than others, and if you want to be the best parent you can be, you should probably consider giving up the Santa Claus lie and/or the elf on the shelf.
Objection 6: So I guess my children are supposed to turn out to be idiotic moral monsters? I believed in Santa and I turned out just fine.
No, I'm suggesting that lying to your children about Santa and the elf on the shelf risks stunting their intellectual and/or moral growth. Will it do so necessarily? Of course not. Your children don't take to heart everything you teach them. But it's a risk—one that's not worth taking.
And the fact that you believed in Santa and "turned out fine" is not evidence that doing so is not risky. I did too, and I am the opposite of credulous. But that's just an anecdote; anecdotes are not good evidence. The fact that my grandfather survived WWII doesn't mean serving in WWII wasn't risky. The fact that you didn't carry the habit of credulous thinking encouraged by the Santa Claus lie into adulthood doesn't mean that your children won't.
(And no, I'm not equating the dangers of war with the dangers of the Santa lie. That was just an example to show the shortcomings of anecdotal evidence.)
Objection 7: Why do you want to take Santa out of Christmas? You're ruining all the magic, fun and excitement. And kids needs such things, especially in times like these.
I'm not suggesting that the Santa myth be removed from Christmas. I'm suggesting that we should no longer teach our children to believe it’s literally true. Tell your children you're going to play a game where you pretend that Santa is real—that's plenty magical and fun. And there's plenty of other ways to create magic and fun at the holidays.
Besides, I’m not sure that literally believing the lie is what creates all the fun and excitement—it's more likely the presents. Give your children the choice between (a) believing St. Nicholas literally exists and will stop by with nuts, candies and fruit (like he used to) or (b) just you giving them an Xbox—and see what they choose.
And “especially in times like these”? It’s very common for people to believe that they live in times that are “worse than normal”—usually people believe they live in the worst time of all. This is why people have been predicting that we live “in the end times”—for the last 2000 years. This is because people are aware of the atrocities of their own times, but not those of others. In reality, the time in which we live has the least amount of disease, violence, war and crime than any time in history—especially in the first world.
Objection 7: I use the lie to teach children critical thinking principles by encouraging them to figure it out for themselves.
I'm not sure I really object to this. Again, I have no objection to playing the "Santa game"—pretending with your children that Santa exists—as long as you never encourage them to literally believe it, don’t lie to them when they ask, and encourage them to figure it out for themselves.
I suppose things could go wrong. I've collected some stories from some parents whose kids won't stop believing Santa exists even though they are told otherwise. But, given what children hear at school, that could happen regardless of whether you play the game or not.
At the least, such an approach is completely different than trying to keep kids believing as long as you can with lies, tricks, fake evidence and magic explanations. If you avoid all that, you’re doing well!
Objection 8: If it’s not okay to teach your children to believe in an imaginary being like Santa, why is it okay to make them believe in an imaginary being like God?
It wouldn’t be, if we all knew that God didn’t exist with the same certainty that we know that Santa doesn’t exist. Notice that, if you don’t believe in God you wouldn’t teach your children to believe in him. Why would it be different with Santa?
Objection 9: I don’t say the elf is watching and reporting back to Santa, I just put the elf in different situations and let the kids find him in the morning.
Interestingly, this objection differentiates between two elements of the elf on a shelf tradition. There’s the “be good, he is watching, and if you are good you will be rewarded” aspect. Then there is tricking them into believing that he’s alive and walks around the house at night, getting into trouble. Some parents recognize the dangers of rewarding children for merely not misbehaving (which is different than punishing them for bad behavior). Children should think they are expected to behave—that it’s normal and not an occasion for lavish reward—and should do so for its own sake. Some parents even think that gifts should be unconditional—an expression of love—and never a bribe. (Honestly, think how much healthier the Santa tradition would be if he gave you gifts simply because “he loves you regardless”—instead of because “you didn’t misbehave.”)
But the same parents may believe it is okay to make kids believe the elf is engaging in shenanigans. Here’s the thing: just like with Santa, there seems to be nothing wrong with playing the game—pretending that Santa and the elf is real—as long as the kids know it’s just a game. Make the elf build an igloo, eat the milk and cookies—but don’t encourage them to believe that any of it is literally real.
Objection 10: I tell my kids about the real Santa—St. Nicholas. He gave gifts to kids, so parents just continue on the tradition.
It turns out, those stories about St. Nicholas and his gift giving are apocryphal—they didn’t really happen. They didn’t even really happen to the Pythagorean philosopher Apollonius, from whom the church borrowed the stories. In fact, given my research, the status of St. Nicholas as a mere historical figure is questionable. (I can already hear the hate mail rolling in.)
Objection 11: Won’t teaching children that their parents lie to them, actually teach them to distrust authority and what others tell them—and won’t that turn them into critical thinkers?
Perhaps, but you can also do this without lying to them and children need to trust their parents, especially in their early years. Besides, what better way to teach them to distrust authority and what others tell them (but also main parental trustworthiness) than by telling children that, even though Santa isn’t real, everyone else in the world will try to lie to them by insisting that he is.
Objection 12: Where is your scientific evidence that The Santa lie promotes credulity?
I’d love some, but Santa is such a sacred cow, no one has ever bothered to do the research. But not every argument has to be scientific to be a good argument. I don’t need a series of studies to know that exposing my child to proper English, even before he can talk, will positively affect his language skills—or to know that exposing him to improper English will have a negative effect. Likewise, if I want to my child to grow up forming reasonable beliefs for good reasons, I need to expose him to such reasoning even before he is able to do it himself, and encourage him to partake in such reasoning whenever I can. Doing so raises the probability that he will have healthy reasoning skills as an adult. I don’t need a study to know this is true.
Objection 13: I don’t want my child to not have any friends at school.
There are other ways of dealing with the fact that many of your child’s friends believe. If you are playing the game with them, just have them play the game with their friends too. Or, just have them say, “at our house, Santa is pretend.” Besides, sometimes the right thing isn’t easy. Suppose you’re a vegetarian; would you pack your child a turkey sandwich so his friends won’t make fun of him? Suppose you’re an atheist. Would you teach your child that God exists?
Objection 14: Finally! We don’t teach our children to believe in Santa, the elf, or anything like that. And I’m so tired of our friends saying that we are bad parents because we don’t lie to our children! I’m so glad to finally find someone on our side—someone who articulates so clearly why it’s such a bad idea.
Okay, so this isn’t an objection—but I had to include it to show that not everyone disagrees with me. In fact, you’d be surprised how many such emails and comments I get. If you don’t tell your children the Santa-Lie, you are not alone.
Don’t see anything like your objection here? Feel free to email me (email@example.com) and I’ll add it to the list.
Want to yell at me live? I’ll be on the Brave Hero Radio podcast, talking about many aspects of Christmas, on Dec 14, 2013.
David Kyle Johnson