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In Defense of Parents Who Don’t Lie About Santa

Do you scold parents who don't lie about Santa? Here's why you shouldn't.

David Kyle Johnson
Source: David Kyle Johnson

I’ve become a bit (in)famous for arguing that parents shouldn’t intentionally trick their children into literally believing that Santa actually exists. In the wake of the publication of my book The Myths That Stole Christmas, I’ve done numerous interviews on the topic.

So each year, as Christmastime approaches, I get an increasing number of emails. Usually, it’s vitriolic hate mail. But this year it’s been mostly friendly—parents who have rejected the practice and are thankful to finally find someone publicly taking their side.

You’d probably be surprised to find out how many supportive emails I get. In fact, I think we’d all be surprised to find out how many parents don’t lie about Santa. Although I know of no reliable poll on the topic, I suspect such parents are actually everywhere—they just have to lay low because of the backlash they’d suffer if they revealed that they don’t lie to their children. Almost every such email I receive contains a cringeworthy story of family and/or friends berating a parent for not lying to their children about Santa—marital woe, parents vs. grandparents, fights with friends…the list goes on.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to defend such parents. My intention is not to convince those who do lie about Santa to stop lying, but I do hope to convince them that they should cease scolding those who don’t.

Whether the non-lying parents be your friends, your spouse, or even your own children (who are refusing to lie to your grandchildren), they probably have pretty good reasons—reasons that you should respect. It’s not immoral or crazy to want to avoid lying to your kids about Santa. In fact, it’s pretty good parenting. You should be proud of them for being willing to buck tradition, and suffer through ridicule, for the sake of their children.

Below are what I take to be the best reasons parents offer for avoiding the Santa lie.

It’s Wrong to Lie

The reasons parents avoid the Santa-lie are often straightforward. Many simply think it's wrong to lie to their children—and they have a good point. Although few philosophers (besides Kant) maintain that lying is always immoral, they do suggest that justifying consequences are necessary—a lie has to do a greater, justifying, good. But what justifying good does the Santa-lie produce?

A sense of wonder? Perhaps, but I could create wonder in my kids by tricking them into thinking that events of Star Wars actually occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…but would we call that a moral lie?

It’s fun for parents? I know I’d have a blast convincing my son that The Doctor (from Doctor Who) delivered presents on Christmas Eve using his TARDIS. But I won’t ever do that because my own enjoyment is not more important than not deceiving my son.

Lying About Santa Doesn’t Promote Imagination

Defenders of the Santa lie like to argue that it’s actually beneficial. Lynda Breen argues (in the Psychiatric Bulletin) that Santa promotes “family bonding and pro-social behavior [like] sharing” (p.455). But, of course, it’s not the lie or literal belief in Santa that does this—it’s the mutual gift-giving.

In the same vein, she also argues that Santa belief encourages “enhanced fantastical thinking, expansion of the internal object world and purposeful play,” (p. 455) Or, as Slate’s parenting advice columnist Melinda Moyer puts it, “What Kris Kringle does…is feed the imagination.” This, in fact, is one of the most common arguments I hear in defense of the Santa Lie.

But while non-lying parents certainly wouldn’t deny the benefits of imagination, they would deny that the Santa-lie promotes it. Indeed, it can stifle imagination. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it, “You're not asking kids to actually imagine anything, you're feeding them beliefs… If believing in Santa was an exercise in imagination, every kid would believe in a different Santa.”

In other words, to imagine that something is true, one has to know it’s not but pretend it is anyway. By tricking our children into believing Santa literally exists, we’re actually robbing them of the opportunity to imagine he exists.

The Santa Lie Isn’t Necessary for Christmas Magic

Those who lie about Santa often think those who don’t are robbing their children of the magic of Christmas. But in no way does producing a memorable and awe-filled Christmas require you to lie to your children. I can’t put it better than one emailer did—a parent who, not surprisingly, requested to remain anonymous.

[W]e 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.” [Christmas] Magic is whatever you want it to be….My kids don't miss out on ANYTHING…

In short, you can pretend alongside your children that Santa is real, while still making clear that he is not, and produce just as much “Christmas magic” as you could by lying to them.

Besides, isn’t most of the excitement about the presents? Convince your kids that Santa is real but have him only bring new socks every year, and see how excited they get.

Santa Steals Your Thunder

Parents are also concerned about how Santa robs them of appreciation; when kids get gifts from Santa, they thank Santa, not their mom and dad. Yet, as psychologist Carl Pickhardt points out, parents need all the help they can get when it comes to their kid’s appreciation.

And not only is that appreciation deserved, but children need reassurance of their parents' love… not Santa’s. As my friend and colleague, theologian Joel Shuman, recently reminded me in correspondence: “From the beginning we made clear to our kids that whatever gifts they received were from my wife and I… [this reflected] certain convictions we had about the ‘economy’ of gifts…They are the giver's way of showing the recipient that he or she has worth and is beloved [by the giver].”

Tricking children into thinking that some of the gifts they receive are from Santa negates the function those gifts are supposed to fulfill: to let a child know that they are loved by their parents.

It’s A Dysfunctional Disciplinarian Crutch

Many parents avoid the Santa lie because they think it is bad parenting. A primary function of the lie is to keep children from misbehaving. “Stop hitting your brother or Santa won’t bring you anything.”

But not only should children embrace good behavior for its own sake, but rewarding a lack of misbehavior gets things backward. I don't give my students bonus points for not cheating on an exam; extra rewards are saved for exceptional efforts and behavior. “So too should it be with children,” say many non-lying parents.

Even defender of the Santa-lie Melinda Moyer agrees that 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, both to develop trust… and to lead by example.” Yet that is how Santa is most often used.

And speaking of trust….

It Threatens Parental Trustworthiness

There is no shortage of stories in my inbox about the moment children learned that Santa wasn’t real. For many, it sticks; for some, it’s traumatic. As adults, many recall with vivid detail the moment they found out—and remember all too well the feeling of betrayal that accompanied it.

Most heartbreaking are the stories of children who defended Santa to the bitter end, to their friends and classmates, declaring “I know that Santa is real because my mom told me he was, and my mom would never lie to me.” The moment you realize the people you trust most in the world would, indeed, lie to you—for years—can permanently damage your view of them.

Indeed, I’ve encountered more than one person who is an atheist today because, they reasoned, “If they’re lying about Santa, they’re probably lying about God and Jesus too.”

Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone, but it is a risk—and it’s a risk that some parents are not willing to take. And hopefully, you can understand why. You may not agree and take the risk yourself, but if it doesn’t actually have the benefits many profess, it’s not crazy to think the risk of lying about Santa isn’t worth it.

As author and parent educator Alyson Schafer put it to Allison Klein, little lies can cause big harm.

Kids globalize and say, ‘My parent is a liar. Are they also lying about loving me?’ The security system of the child is undermined. Kids need a lot of stability…We’re modeling that lying is acceptable.

Interestingly, the risk is likely higher in autistic children. Although I know of no study that looks at the effect of the Santa lie on autistic children specifically, studies do show that they have difficulty keeping track of their own lies. They also have notorious issues with trust and letting go of past betrayals, tend to take things literally, and of course, have difficulty ascribing mentality to others.

Would it be surprising, then, to find out that they have trouble understanding why your little white lie about Santa doesn’t entail that you are likely lying about a great many other things? Since autism is a spectrum disorder, and not always diagnosed, it makes sense for parents to want to avoid lying about Santa altogether. You just never know.

It Encourages Lazy and Credulous Thinking

In my opinion, the worst aspect of the Santa-lie (and many parents agree) is how it promotes credulity.

Although Vicki Hoefle (another author and parent educator) is not completely opposed to the lie, she does admit that when children start having their doubts, it’s probably best to 'fess up.

Yet when this day comes, parents usually aren’t willing to give in. To keep their children believing for as long as they can, parents often encourage them to embrace magical explanations, stifle doubt, be convinced by bad evidence, and "not question and just believe because, you know, it's fun.” Yet, each of these is a habit of lazy thinking, the encouragement of which risks making our children credulous thinkers.

Since such thinking is harmful to society and can even be harmful to our children—encouraging a kind of gullibility that can promote poor life decisions and make them susceptible to things like alternative medicine scams, Ponzi schemes, and anti-vaccine rhetoric—it’s something we should avoid.

Of course, telling the Santa-lie doesn’t guarantee your child will be credulous, but it increases the risk. And we need all the help we can get. As S. A. Lloyd paraphrased the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “People are…naturally credulous, and easily manipulated” (p. 134). In the same way that we should model and encourage good language skills to our children from the beginning, we should model and encourage careful and critical thinking in our children too.

Please Cease and Desist

Now, not all parents who lie to their children about Santa harass those who do not. But clearly some do. If you have, I hope the arguments I have presented have convinced you to stop. I’m not asking you to stop lying to your own children about Santa, but please stop thinking those who don’t are bad parents. Stop trying to convince them to lie like you do. Respect their decision and realize that they likely have some pretty good reasons for avoiding the Santa lie.

Christmas doesn’t belong to anyone. As its history and the way it has been celebrated through the years make clear, it’s a human festival—a natural human reaction to the changing of the seasons. Anyone can celebrate just about any way they want. Others don’t have to celebrate Christmas just like you do to get it right—and that includes parents who choose not to lie to their kids about Santa.

David Kyle Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College, a professor for The Great Courses, and author of the book The Myths That Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions that Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back).

Copyright 2015, David Kyle Johnson

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