Should You Lie to Kids About Santa?
While lying to kids is generally a bad idea, lies about Santa may be harmless.
Posted Dec 09, 2019
I don’t recall exactly how old I was at the time, but the memory of that December day lingers as if it was just last week. My brother, James, led me quietly to an unused bedroom in the back of our house to show me what he had found. As we slipped into the room, I was astonished by what we saw. Presents! Lots and lots of them.
I remember seeing dolls for my sisters, other toys for my toddler siblings, and, best of all, a racetrack for someone my age. It was a most exciting discovery. My brother and I immediately descended on the racetrack and began to play with it.
Fortunately, some capable adults had already unboxed it and set it up, so we got straight to work racing. As we fooled around with the new toy, I noticed the many gifts surrounding us still in shopping bags from stores at the mall. A thought suddenly came over me. Christmas was just a couple of days away. These were Christmas presents. My parents must have bought them. That could mean only one thing.
The rumors were true. There was no Santa Claus. My parents lied about Santa Claus. When my mom found us playing with the toys, she tried to conjure some half-baked explanation for why Santa had stashed the toys there, but James and I knew better. She was a liar.
I won’t be too judgmental about my mom, though. After all, most parents are liars. One study found that 84 percent of U.S. parents lie to their children about a number of things. Parents use their lies primarily to manipulate their kids. The most frequently reported lie in that study was threatening to leave a child behind if the kid refused to follow the parent. Ah, the fear of abandonment is always such an effective motivator! To the parents’ credit, I suppose lying to your kid about leaving them at the mall is less bad than actually following through.
As a general rule of thumb, it might be good advice for parents to stop being so dishonest with their kids. In a recent study on parental lying, the researchers asked adults if they had been lied to by their parents when growing up. Those people who were lied to the most by their parents were more likely to lie back to their parents. They also had higher levels of psychosocial maladjustment.
You can be a good role model, or you can be a bad role model. Your choice. However, being a dishonest parent may be setting the stage for your kids to have a tough road ahead.
Lying to kids doesn’t only create problems down the road. There are more immediate consequences. In one study, adults either modeled honest behavior or dishonest behavior. It shouldn’t be surprising to you that these little kids played a bit of following the leader. Those who watched honest adults tended to behave more honestly soon after, and those who saw dishonest adults tended to become little liars themselves immediately.
Lying to your kids can also disrupt the relationship you have with them. In one study, the researchers found that after kids detected adults being dishonest with them (and kids are much better BS detectors than we give them credit for), they tended to trust those adults less. We all want our kids to trust us, but as we’ve all learned before, trust is earned over a lifetime, yet it can be squandered in an instant of dishonesty.
Let’s get back to ol’ Saint Nick. Is it OK to lie to your kids about Santa Claus? After all, what could be wrong with convincing your young child that some old guy breaks into your house once a year and eats your cookies? If you do spread that lie to your kid, you are far from alone. Research shows that the vast majority of American parents promote a false belief in Santa Claus, and most small children accept that story as real.
In fact, research shows that most parents work very hard to perpetuate the myth of Santa. Despite parents’ best efforts to promote the Santa story, most kids figure out the truth by the time they turn 7. When those kids eventually unravel the Christmas conspiracy and identify their parents as the present-buying liars, are they upset? Quite the contrary. Most kids have positive reactions to learning the truth.
In one recent study by Dr. Drew Curtis, he asked a bunch of college students how often their parents had promoted the myth of Santa Clause. He also asked them how they felt about it and how their relationship with their parents is currently. Curtis found that most reported that their parents had lied about Santa a lot. They also said that they viewed their parents' Santa lies as being somewhat dishonest. Fortunately for parents, he found that there was no link between how many Santa lies had been told and how good of a relationship people have with their parents currently.
Taken together, it looks like lying to your kids is generally a bad idea. However, if you want to tell a little fib to your kid about the old man from the North Pole, you probably aren’t going to ruin their life or send your relationship with them into a tailspin. When I think back to that time before James and I found the toys and exposed the truth about Santa, it was a lot of fun. Believing in Santa and awaiting his visits was thrilling and enchanting.
There aren’t many magical things that happen in life. When they do present themselves, it can be a great joy, even if it is only for a few precious years, and even if it turns out to be just a fun story spun by the people who love you most. Those memories of those magical times can still bring cheer to your heart years later.