Is it really okay to teach your child to believe in Santa? I’ve been asked that several times this month, by parents worried about the role they’ve played in “lying to their child”. The issue of whether or not it is ‘morally appropriate’ to encourage your child to believe in a fantasy figure is always a hot topic on internet forums such as Reddit’s Change My View and Room for Debate, where hundreds of parents contribute their views.
Should parents worry about deceiving their children? There are some who choose not to take the risk, and so search out a non-mainstream way to engage their young children in Christmas. But there are vastly many more, of course, who step into this cultural tradition. Santa is, after all, kept alive only by adults’ willingness to talk about him, to create images of him, to tell stories about him and his elves. Nowadays you can even track Santa’s Christmas Eve progress across the global sky, using internet tools and apps like the NORAD Santa Tracker, operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, who give regular updates of reindeer sightings throughout the night. For a child who is doubting, there’s an awful lot of evidence around that confirms Santa’s existence.
A description of NORAD’s Santa Tracking capacities
A lot of that evidence is now pretty hi-tech. For example, last week US President Barack Obama suggested that the US military’s C-130 transport aircraft was “a little more efficient than Santa’s sleigh”. NORAD was able to counter this suggestion by providing detailed specs of Santa’s sleigh, including the fact that its max speed is “faster than starlight” and that the only armament it carries are antlers, “purely for defensive purposes”.
Of course, parents who encourage belief often do so because they remember the sense of magic that Santa held for them as a child. The Christmas Eve rituals of a household can certainly feel wondrous. Leaving out biscuits, mince pies, a glass of sherry, a carrot. Waking to find the carrot half-eaten. Seeing the soot left on the hearth from Santa’s scrabbling back up the chimney. In my own family, it was making a trip up to the attic loft to see if we could catch a glimpse of Santa’s elves, who had been living there for the whole month of December, monitoring our behaviour. My father always managed to caught a glimpse of the elves scuttling back behind a box, but I was frustratingly too slow to ever spot them myself…
It is wrong to want a child to experience such enchantment? How much does that sit at odds with a parent’s wish to raise a child who trusts them and who values honesty? What happens when your child arrives home one day, looks you straight in the eye, and asks, “Is Santa really real?”
Parents know that moment. Many fear it, not knowing whether they should feel guilty or sad. When it is time to come clean? And what’s the best way to phrase your answer?
That’s what one mother asked me this month, when her 10-year-old son came home from school saying that his teacher had said there was no such thing as Santa Claus. He asked her, point-blank: “Please tell me the truth, Mummy. Who really buys the presents?”
His mum said to me that she had answered the question honestly, although up until then they fudged the difference between reality, magic, and ‘choosing to believe’. She was, though, of the opinion that she herself had deserved the opportunity to manage his transition into Knowing, instead of having another adult bounce him into it.
Can developmental science offer any help in figuring out how to manage this tricky moment of potential disconnection between a parent and a child? Yes, I think it can. In fact, another commentator who writes a blog on parenting science calls the research findings ‘pretty reassuring’.
There are a number of developmental psychologists who study the way in which children come to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Pretend play is immensely important in early development. That’s one of the reasons that it is running rampant around 3 – 4 years of age. Pretend play fosters children’s imagination, especially when adults join in with the fun. “What did the teddy bear say to you?” “Yes, please pour me another cup of tea into this thumbnail-sized tea cup.” “Of course I’d like to take a phone call from your Granda on this banana.” “No more giggling at me! You know how much I love to eat mud!”
Pretend play, which is by definition creative and spontaneous, actually helps children to develop the ability to think logically. The developmental research shows that children bring that ability to reason logically to their understanding of Santa. As they mature beyond 4 years old, they begin to reason out whether all those things the adults have been telling them could actually be true or not. “Would a guy that fat really fit down the chimney?” “How much does a gigantic sack of presents weigh, anyway?” “Do reindeer really have enough energy to do all that flying?” These are questions that children dream up themselves, illustrating how they go about honing their reasoning skills. Unsurprisingly, parents aren’t always let in on the deep thinking their youngster is doing -– nor do all adults recall that stage of their own development.
In a well known study carried out in 2006 by Professor Jacqueline Woolley, based at the University of Texas, children of various ages were told about creatures called ‘surnits’. Professor Woolley’s team was interested in learning more about the children’s thinking regarding real versus imaginary creatures. The team gave the children two different kinds of ‘evidence bases’ for the existence of the creatures. One group of children received medical evidence: “Doctors use surnits to help in hospital.” Another group received paranormal evidence: “Ghosts try to catch surnits at night.” The findings were very interesting: children as young as 4 were more likely to say that surnits were real if they had been told about doctors than if they had been told about ghosts. So even young children are reasoning logically about the things they hear. Children don’t believe things simply because adults tell them it is so. They evaluate what they hear, drawing on whatever wider knowledge base they have been able to gather about the world.
What happens, then, when a child decides to confront a trusted adult about a potential lie? “Please tell me the truth, Mummy. Who really buys the presents?” Are children angry at their parents once it’s been confirmed their parents haven’t been telling them the literal truth? Is trust permanently damaged?
Well, some stories told by adults suggest that the discovery is indeed devastating. However, there are also many stories, and research as well, to show that this point of discovery does not have to be traumatic. John Condry is another developmental researcher who has done classic work in this area. In 1987, he carried out his PhD dissertation at Cornell University, interviewing more than 500 children on this topic. His results showed that children did not generally report being angry with their parents. The most common response was that they now felt older and more mature. They knew something about the world that younger kids didn’t. Indeed, Professor Woolley thinks that it may be children’s “kinship with the adult world” that prevents them from being angry about having been misled.
What do we learn from this research? The first insight is that by the time children ask parents to tell them the truth, it is likely they have been engaging in a long process, perhaps lasting for several years, of reasoning things out for themselves. It may even be that children who haven’t had a chance to indulge in that reasoning process are the most upset when learning that Santa isn’t real. This means we need to let children get there at their own pace, and we need to tell them the truth when they decide to ask.
Second, we learn that it is possible to think of this moment of transition in a child’s life not simply as a revelation of untruth, but as a rite of passage. In traditional cultures, children’s journey to adulthood was usually marked formally, through some sort of official ceremony: temporary isolation, an intense period of mentoring, even bodily mutilation. The entire community participated in that ceremony, thereby allowing the child to take on a new public identity that aided his or her journey to adulthood. We have precious few such rites of passage today.
What events exist in the 21st century that serve as a rite of passage? Interestingly, that’s a question Tim Lott explored in the Guardian earlier this year. How does today’s ‘clan’ formally acknowledge that a child is stepping across the threshold of adulthood? In Jewish communities, you hold a Bar Mitzvah (or Bat Mitzvah for girls). In many other communities, the moment passes less significantly. Perhaps it’s the first day of secondary school? Maybe donning the uniform of secondary school? Perhaps holding an 18th birthday party? Not so long ago, you could at least count on getting a job. It’s harder and harder for youth to do that now, though. Maybe that explains why young men join gangs? (Yes, Tim Lott sees gang membership as a sign of our culture’s failure to give adolescents a formal rite of passage into adulthood. He wonders if it might also have anything to do with adolescent women getting pregnant…)
How’s this for an idea: what if we looked on the ‘is Santa real?’ moment as a rite of passage? What if the child is signaling that he or she is ready to take a step out of childhood, advancing toward an adult world that he has been scrutinising for some time. What if they are asking one of the adults they trust most in their world to help them with that step. “Please tell me the truth, Mummy. Who really buys the presents?”
So how did our 10-year-old and his parents do, once they had been bounced over that threshold by a teacher? Well, the latest update I had from his mum is that it was “much less traumatic” than she had feared. They’ve been able to stick with their own personal way of making sense of Santa. They are ‘choosing to believe’ in the magic of Christmas, which is, for them, ultimately about loving and giving and just being together.
Even with that outcome, though, and the “brilliant chats” that followed afterwards was it still a tough moment for Mum? She tells me yes, it was. She was “quite teary” – that is, until that 10-year-old son of hers saved the moment with his cheeky logical reasoning skills when he announced: “There was no way he could have got down our chimney, anyway!”
So what suggestions for parents lie within these stories?
Professor Woolley suggests that, on Christmas morning, when the children come rushing in to see what Santa brought, parents revel not in their wide-eyed wonder, but in how sophisticated and clever their young minds really are.
My mum with the 10-year-old suggests that families might find it helpful to watch the animated film The Polar Express. It’s all about a boy who doesn’t believe in Santa – but who comes to realise that the most important things in life are the things you can’t see.
Trailer of The Polar Express, starring Tom Hanks
My own gentle suggestion is for all the other adults who populate children’s lives – like teachers. Let me confirm, for those of you who are asking, outraged, why a teacher would do such a thing as to tell a child that Santa doesn’t exist, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know why the teacher of that 10-year-old said what she did. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe she only whispered it to another member of staff. Maybe she thought it was silly that a boy in Primary 6 should still be encouraged to believe in Santa by his parents. I don’t know what her intention was.
What I do know is that that 10-year-old boy is soon to lose another beloved elderly man in his life. His grandfather has terminal cancer and may have only a few weeks left to live. The family is doing an amazing job of embracing that particular aspect of adulthood with as much joy and laughter as they can possibly muster this Christmas.
We adults need to be aware of what we say to the children whose lives we touch. We often have no idea what realities they are facing.