Nov 28 2016
Lancet Psychiatry has published an opinion piece (which the media is sometimes confusingly referring to as “research”) in which the authors argue that telling children Santa is real may be harmful and immoral. I have to completely disagree with the authors and I think their opinion reflects only their own biases.
Their primary thesis is that if parents tell their children a lie for years, sometimes maintaining that lie with elaborate deception, and the children inevitably discover the lie, that will undermine the child’s faith in the authority of their parents. They write:
“If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?”
The unstated major assumption here is that it is a good thing for parents to be the, “guardians of wisdom and truth.” That is a value judgement, and one with which I completely disagree. I believe children should be taught to question authority, and as they mature to learn that there are no guardians of truth.
It is a delicate balance. You want people (not just children) to respect appropriate authority, but at the same time realize that no authority is infallible. They can be wrong, and you should think for yourself (while recognizing your own limits). That is the destination, and children should be on a journey toward that destination, not reverence for the guardians of truth.
What really struck me, and led me to the conclusion that the authors were following their own cultural biases, was this line:
“An adult comforting a child and telling them that their recently deceased pet will go to a special place (animal heaven) is arguably nicer than telling graphic truths about its imminent re-entry into the carbon cycle.”
So, it is OK to lie to a child about one of the biggest questions of existence, what happens after death, rather than perpetuate an otherwise harmless fantasy about a toy-giving elf?
I have raised two daughters, and they encountered the usual amount of death for living in a stable part of the world. They lost pets, relatives, and witnessed the cruelty of nature first hand. My comfort to them at such times was, in fact, to teach them (in part) about the carbon cycle. Nature is all about an endless cycle of life and death, and we are all part of that cycle. Sure, a snake ate those baby bluebirds, but snakes have to eat to live also, and if no baby bluebirds were ever eaten they would soon overpopulate the world.
I know it’s cheesy, but The Lion King does a good job of teaching children about the circle of life. What is wrong with that? Do these authors really think it is benign to distract children from one of the central lessons of existence with a pervasive myth about a magical heaven? That myth also tends to survive into adulthood, while the Santa myth is eventually discovered.
As a skeptic I am often asked how I personally dealt with my own children and Santa. My wife and I never directly lied to our children about Santa or perpetuated the myth. We didn’t have to, they absorbed it from the culture. We never contradicted the myth, however. We let them believe without supporting or denying the myth. They also never asked us directly about it.
For each of them, at an appropriate age, they started to question Santa all by themselves. The story superficially does not make any sense, and they figured that out. When they started to question Santa out loud, I encouraged their skepticism. I did not give them the answers, just nudged them to continue to think and to question. I also suggested that perhaps Santa is more of an idea than a real person, the spirit of giving and love for others, something we take time to remember each year during the darkest time of year (at least in the Northern hemisphere).
There was never any traumatic realization of betrayal. Their concept of Santa simply matured as they matured. They enjoyed the “magic” of Christmas in an appropriate way at every age, just like I still do as an adult.
And hell yes, my children question the “guardians of truth.” They especially revel in challenging their father, and delight in knowing more about something than me. I never explicitly pushed “skepticism” as a philosophy onto them. I just modeled it for them, and they absorbed it. As a result they truly own their skepticism, it is part of how they understand the world.
The authors of the Lancet article, in my opinion, utterly failed. The Santa myth is benign and it can be used to teach children that authorities should not be believed absolutely. There are no guardians of truth. Culture is also complicated and there are a lot of beliefs perpetuated in culture that are simply not true.
The Santa myth is like training wheels for critical thinking. It is a fun and benign myth but one that kids can figure out on their own even at a young age.
It also represents how a hardened skeptic can still embrace the human condition. We are emotional and social creatures. We also have imaginations. It is quite possible to have a purely materialistic view of the world and still embrace a sense of connection to something greater than oneself – a sense of community, of being part of an endless cycle of existence, and of being part of the fabric of social connections and feelings.
Santa and Christmas are ideas originating in the notion that humans huddle together during the darkest and coldest part of the year. It is part of our nature and how we survive. Family and friends are important. Every year we take a break from whatever else is going on and we take time to remember and honor that. Santa is just part of that narrative. Let children understand Santa and Christmas in their own way, and that understanding will evolve and mature as they do.
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