David Kyle Johnson Ph.D.

A Logical Take

Sorry Sean Hannity, the Truth About Santa Isn’t “Fake News”

And teachers telling students the truth doesn't violate religious rights.

Posted Dec 04, 2018

Although I work on many topics, I am perhaps most famous for my arguments that parents shouldn’t lie to their children about Santa. Yesterday, the producers of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News flirted with the idea of having me on to talk about an incident in New Jersey where a substitute teacher revealed (to first graders) the truth about Santa, Elf on a Shelf, The Easter Bunny and a few other myths after a “writing lesson gone astray.” "A student had written that Santa is real.” the school’s principal said. “She [the teacher] felt compelled, somehow, to tell a student that Santa is not real,” and then the whole thing got out of control. Hannity’s producers (who couldn’t have been nicer) ended up not asking me to be on the show, but I ended up watching the segment anyway—and their analysis ended up raising a number of questions to my mind.  

Was the Teacher in the Wrong? Was It Her Fault?

First of all, it’s not clear that the teacher stepped out of bounds. The details of what happened are sketchy. If she took the initiative, unprompted, to set the kids straight about mythical creatures, that’s probably out of line. While I have argued profusely that parents should not lie to their kids about Santa, parents do have a right to make personal decisions about how their children are raised—and a teacher intentionally co-opting such a decision, unprompted, doesn’t seem right (especially if they are a substitute).

On the other hand, if the teacher was asked by the students if Santa and other mythical creatures were real—which, from the report, seems most likely—well, it’s not a teacher’s obligation to protect a child’s naiveté or to back up parental lies. Teachers have an obligation to give their students true and factual information; if a parent decides to lie to their children about something, it’s not a teacher’s fault when that child comes to them as their student and asks for the truth—even if it is about Santa.

For example, my wife (a teacher) told me just yesterday about a student whose mother lied to her and told her that the local nuclear power plant, whose stacks spews large amounts of steam into the air, was just “a cloud maker.” If even a first grader wrote that in a paper, I would feel compelled to correct them. And if the child’s trust in their parent is broken as a result, that’s the parent’s fault for lying—not the teacher’s fault for telling the truth. And that fact doesn't change just because Santa is a popular or common lie. 

Indeed, just like the parents, the teacher’s credibility is on the line in these situations. If the teacher knowingly lies to one student about Santa, but another student knows that Santa is not real, the other student may (justifiably) worry that the teacher is an idiot, or is lying about other subjects. Although the teacher in this case maybe should have handled things more judiciously—a Socratic approach, where a series of question leads to them to draw their own conclusion, would seem ideal—maligning this teacher and saying that she should be fired because she can’t be trusted around young children (as Hannity and the guests on his show did) constitutes a giant overreaction. The truth that Santa is not real is not a danger to children, and people who choose not to lie to children about it are not moral monsters. 

In fact, I would argue that this incident is largely the parents' fault because, as a group, parents have put teachers in an impossible situation. They tell their children grandiose lies that they expect everyone to protect, but then give their teacher the task of educating them and teaching them the truth about the world. To make matters worse, some kids believe these lies, others don’t, some figure it out early, others later. If the subject is broached, and honest questions are asked, what is a teacher supposed to do? This incident demonstrates, all the more clearly, a point I have made over and over: The Santa Claus lie hinders children’s cognitive development.

How Should the Parents Respond?

Speaking of which… in the tweet that apparently broke this story (which you can find here), one of the parents of the children said:

“Many of us parents have been doing damage control since the kids got home from school today, but coming from an adult, this is definitely the kind of seed that was planted deep inside their skeptical, perceptive, and inquisitive minds. Praying for a Christmas Magic miracle to keep these kids believers for as long as possible.”

In an update, she mentioned that a high school teacher was going to have her journalism class write these students fake letters from Santa to keep them believing, thus perpetuating the lie even further.

This, it seems, is the worst possible thing that the parents can do in response to this incident, and it highlights like a neon sign everything that is wrong with the Santa lie in the first place. Yes, perhaps the teacher did some damage, but the parents can only do more damage by continuing to lie.

For one, it puts your credibility as a parent, and your child’s trust in you, in danger. As I cataloged in the sixth chapter of my book, The Myths That Stole Christmas, the “moment of truth” can cause a major “trust rift” to emerge between a parent and child. Of course, it doesn’t happen to every kid; but in this case, the kids already know the truth—the cat’s out of the bag. Continuing to lie to them can only increase the risks of such a thing happening. Children need to believe that their parents are a reliable source of information; lying to them about what they already know is false is a very bad idea. 

Secondly, as the tweet makes clear, efforts to keep “kids believers for as long as possible” show a blatant disregard for the development of “skeptical, perceptive, and inquisitive minds” in children. To keep them believing, you are going to have to stifle their curiosity and skepticism, encourage them to embrace fallacious reasoning, and tell them to believe things because “it’s fun,” because “your gut tells you it’s true,” or because “it comes with a reward.” The existing education system is already dreadfully inadequate when it comes to developing basic critical thinking skills; we don’t need parents pulling children in the opposite direction.

Is the Santa Lie (Like) a Religious Doctrine?  

In condemnation of this teacher’s actions, the commentators on Hannity’s show insisted that the teacher had no right to do what she did because it was “putting [her] personal beliefs into the classroom.” If the parent’s personal beliefs are that “Santa is real” then the teacher has no right to contradict that belief. “It’s like religion. You don’t bring these things up in a classroom.” The teacher’s belief system should not “supersede” that of the parents.

But the parent’s personal belief is not that Santa is real. (If they believed that Santa was real there would be no gifts under their tree because they would rely on Santa to supply them.) They, of course, know that Santa is not real. (I can’t believe I have to point that out.) [1] The parent’s personal belief is that the child should believe in Santa—and that they should be lied to so as to keep that belief going. That is not a religious belief, nor is it like one. Granted, people often protect children’s belief in Santa with a religious fervor; God wishes he had the kind of societal protection from “debunking” that Santa has. But “my child should believe something I know is false” is nothing like a religious belief. And suggesting that they are similar cheapens and belittles religious belief to a degree that should be unconscionable to the average Fox News viewer. It implies that religion is a willing lie—something that, say, clergy know is false but trick people into believing anyway because they think people are better off believing it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think God is any more real than Santa. And I have argued in print that many of the arguments that people give for God are no better than the kinds of justification that are given for Santa. But not even I would say that we know that God doesn’t exist with the same assuredness that we know that Santa doesn’t exist. Not even I would say that clergy are tricking their congregations into believing something they know is false (although we do know that some clergy are closet atheists.) As such, a parent’s belief that their child should be lied to about Santa is nothing like a religious belief, and thus does not enjoy the same kind of legal protections. Therefore, no teacher, not even a substitute one, should ever be fired for revealing the truth about Santa (or any verified objective truth for that matter). [2] 

The Solution Is Not “School Choice”

One of Hannity’s commentators, Rachel Campos-Duffy, suggest that the solution to this little problem is “school choice.” If a school is not responding to what “the parents want”—if they are not teaching them what the parents want their children to be taught—the parents should be able to just pull them out and put them in a school that does. On the surface, this sounds nice—but in reality, it is a terrifying suggestion that would not only be unconstitutional, but detrimental to our education system.

It’s unconstitutional because it is grounded in an effort to promote a school voucher system, where parents would essentially receive a certain amount of government money to spend on a child’s education and could spend that money at whatever school they want. But since parents could (and many would) spend that money on schools that, for example, not only teach six-day creationism, and that the universe is only 6000 years old—but also that Jesus is God, and that abortion is wrong, etc.—this system would, in effect, allow taxpayer money to be spent on religious indoctrination. And this is contrary to The First Amendment which clearly states that the government should pass no law that respects any religious establishment. (For more on this, see the Colorado Supreme Court ruling on this matter.) 

To boot, “vaccine truthers” would start sending their kids to “anti-vaxxer” schools, climate change deniers would send their kids to “global-warming-skeptic” schools, alternative medicine fanatics would send their kids to “alternative medical schools”—a whole litany of “anti-science” schools would pop up. (There’d likely be a “School of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” too!) Not only would this be detrimental to our country and democracy—embracing scientific knowledge is what propelled us to the moon and helped make this country great, and a democracy depends on intelligently and factually-informed voters—but it would be contrary to the entire purpose of an educational system.

How so? 

The purpose of an education is not to tell you what you want to hear, to reinforce your already existing beliefs, or assure you that your worldview is unquestionably correct. As I always tell my students, “If you want to just believe what you have always believed, there is no point in you being here. You can do that from your couch at home!” The purpose of an education (among other things) is to teach you what is decidedly true, give you the ability to draw informed conclusions about what is not, and to be able to tell the difference between the two. It has to make you realize what you have been wrong about; that is how educational progress is made. The very essence of learning involves shedding false beliefs and embracing true ones. [3]

An educational system that placated parents' ignorant anti-science and pseudo-scientific beliefs would no longer be an educational system. Schools would turn into indoctrination centers. Yes, schools should generally respect a child’s religious beliefs—but unless you believe that religion and science are not compatible, and thus that religious belief is fundamentally unscientific, that fact does not require schools to respect unscientific beliefs. Yet that is exactly what a voucher system would do.

Is the Truth About Santa Fake News?

On the off chance that children were watching his show (what first grader is watching Hannity at 9:50pm on a school night?!), Sean assured his viewers that any reports that they had heard that Santa Claus, Rudolph, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny are not real is “fake news.” Ironically, Hannity is giving away the entire game here. I know he’s just kind of making a joke to try to cover his ass (so parents won’t get mad at him for ruining their kids' naiveté like the teacher did), but this actually reflects his entire approach to news commentary.

He is saying that something he knows is true—that Santa doesn’t exist—is “fake news” to trick his viewers into believing it is false. This is what he does with everything. The Russia investigation isn’t “fake news.” It’s already led to multiple indictments and guilty pleas. Yet Sean has declared it is. Trump's Russian business ties weren’t fake news; indeed, Trump has now openly admitted it. But back when Trump was denying it, calling it fake news, Hannity backed him up.  Now the videos of Trump saying that the reports of his business dealings in Russia were fake news, are fake news.

Just as parents do when they talk to their kids about Santa, Hannity's commentary encourages viewers to believe what isn't true. This could be why he is so upset about a first-grade substitute teacher criticizing this approach.

Is the “War on Christmas” Back On? 

In the second chapter of my book, The Myths that Stole Christmas, I refute Hannity’s predecessor’s (Bill O’Riley) claim that there is a liberal "War on Christmas." Last night, Hannity claimed that it “was back.” But not only is there absolutely no evidence that the substitute teacher in question is “a liberal” or a “leftist,” but thinking that ruining a child’s belief in Santa ruins their entire Christmas completely misunderstands what Christmas is about.

Indeed, it again endorses a view that should appall the average Fox News viewer. So they don’t believe in Santa anymore. Does that mean that they can’t celebrate the birth of Jesus? Does that mean that they can’t do charity work or donate to the poor? Does that mean that they can’t spend time with family? It might surprise Sean to know that a good chunk of emails that I get from parents who applaud my arguments that parents shouldn’t lie to their children about Santa are staunch conservative Christians who don’t teach their children about Santa because he is a distraction from what they see as “the real reason for the season.” Some of them would actually applaud this substitute teacher’s efforts.

Perhaps Sean could learn a bit from the Grinch about the true meaning of Christmas. He thought that stealing all the presents from the kids in Whoville would ruin their Christmas. Sean thinks stealing literal belief in Santa will.  But when the Grinch turned his ear toward the town to listen for their cries, he heard them singing instead. "It came without ribbons. It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags." And Christmas will joyously come to these first graders, regardless of whether they literally believe that Santa is a physical person, or not. Why? Because, contrary to what Sean thinks, "Christmas...means a little bit more."

Copyright, David Kyle Johnson  (2018)


[1] Some will respond to this by insisting that Santa Claus is real because St. Nicholas was real. However, (a) as I argued in the 5th chapter of my book, The Myths that Stole Christmas, St. Nicholas wasn’t actually real. He was not an historical person. Like many Catholic saints, he is simply a “Christianization” of a pagan god. (b) What parents trick their children into believing is that there is a man named Santa who lives at The North Pole who delivers toys to every child on Christmas Eve via flying reindeer. Since none of that is thought to be true of the “historical” St. Nicholas, a parent believing that the historical St. Nicholas exists does not entail that parent believes that Santa exists.

[2] Not to mention: it would be unreasonable to expect teachers to keep track of which student believes which parental lies.

[3] I am compelled to add that, contrary to Hannity's claims, the education system is not run by the liberal elite in an unholy alliance with the Democrats to indoctrinate your children. It just turns out that, when you teach kids facts and the basics of logic and critical thinking, they often come to non-conservative conclusions. Hannity is confusing a lack of conservative bias, with a liberal bias. The fact that colleges do not indoctrinate their students with his conservative ideas does not mean that they are "liberally biased." 

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