Let Them Believe
by Sam Dietel ’23
The magic of Christmas is once again upon us. It’s time to decorate your tree, hang the stockings, and blare “Jingle Bells.” Many of us have memories—fond ones, hopefully—of a jolly fat guy in a red suit breaking into our homes, eating our cookies, and leaving gifts under the tree. The lie about Santa is far-reaching, and one that most parents push for years. This act of deceiving children is one of constant controversy. Is it right to lie to kids? Or does the magic of Christmas outweigh the harm? Numerous studies have found that there are no long-term problems for children if you encourage the Santa myth.
According to one research study, 84 percent of parents in the US lie to their children to encourage behavioral compliance. Among the lies being told, parents in the US were more adamant about lying to their kids about the existence of fantasy characters than in other countries, and 87 percent of US parents reported lying about Santa Claus. Parents reported that it’s important for the development of their children that they believe in such characters. Kids will have their entire lives to learn that magic isn’t real. Let them enjoy the fantasy while they can.
All of this being said, I’m not encouraging total dishonesty with children. This is where you need to pick and choose your battles—or in this case—lies. Research in Singapore has shown that the practice of parenting by lying, which is using deception to control children’s behavior, led to the children showing higher levels of deception to their parents and higher levels of psychosocial maladjustment. So, should we throw away all lies relating to Santa? No. You may want to consider removing the threats, though. The use of deception to exert control is a problem. If you tell a kid that they’ll be on Santa’s naughty list for not eating their vegetables, you’re contorting the magic of Christmas for your own agenda and potentially creating damaging effects that will follow the child to adulthood. The deception of Santa’s existence alone, however, is not inherently evil.
Besides, belief in Santa has an expiration date. As children grow older and continue developing, they get better at distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Age 7 is the typical age when kids discover the truth, and results indicate that parents are more upset by the discovery than the children are. Despite strong parental encouragement to believe in Santa, one study found that children reported predominantly positive reactions when they found out the truth. It was the parents who reported feeling sad at their child’s discovery.
Not only is there no harm in believing in Santa, but there’s actually an abundance of benefits backed by years of research that shows belief in fantasy characters builds children’s ability to accept abstract concepts like generosity, change, and difference. It also serves to strengthen their ability for faith in the unobservable and intangible. Not only this, but it is an American rite of passage that many young children experience. Participating in this tradition also allows the parents to relive the childhood magic, showing the myth is for everyone and not just kids.
When determining whether to lie to kids about Santa, it is important to examine the issue from a child-centered perspective rather than adult assumptions on the impact of the deception. In my own research in the Imaginative Thought and Learning Lab, we have examined how children learn from fantasy. Studies on children’s learning through fantasy, pretend play, pretense, etc. is currently booming in the research field. Studies show that these scenarios don’t detract from learning. In fact, learning from fantasy may even increase learning. This is especially true when it comes to abstract concepts like generosity, on which the Santa myth is built. In the early stages of development, children struggle to understand abstract ideas and only think concretely. The stories of Santa Claus and other fictional characters are used to explain difficult, intangible concepts that don’t make sense yet to kids. The deception around Santa Claus ends when children are around 7, but the memories last a lifetime. There is no harm in letting children experience that fleeting magic that only a kid can experience.
Canceling Santa Claus
by Meghan Mitchell ’23
Historically, Christmas has been a powerful holiday that symbolizes giving and showing kindness to others. However, over the years, Christmas has become less about giving and more about capitalism. While there are many reasons for this, one of the most glaring reasons is Santa Claus. Santa has been a Christmas staple for many years and is known as the person who will essentially bribe kids into behaving properly with the promise of gifts under the Christmas tree if they do. Despite being around for years, is it really harmless to lie to your kids about his existence?
While the person on whom Santa is based, Saint Nicholas, was a real person, Santa himself is not. Yet, year after year, parents feed lies to their kids telling them that if they are on the nice list, this jolly old man will sneak into their house while they’re asleep and leave presents under the tree. While this sounds cute, the idea of Santa Claus is creepy if you think about it. The lie implies that he stalks children, as he is always watching them to see if they’re misbehaving. Then he sneaks into people’s houses. Why would you lie to your kids about this? Lying to children about Santa being real could also have some unintended consequences. While the myth has good intentions, breaking and entering is still illegal, yet Santa has the audacity to judge people.
If a child doesn’t get any presents because their parents cannot afford to get them, the child will blame themselves, thinking that they were not good this year. Furthermore, in 2016, The Huffington Post published an article suggesting that the Santa Claus mythos may be harmful to kids psychologically. Psychologist Christopher Boyle from the University of Exeter and mental health researcher Kathy McKay from the University of New England both say that this supposedly harmless white lie can severely damage a child’s trust in their parents. “All children will eventually find out they’ve been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they’ve been told,” they added. If anything, this teaches kids once they find out the truth that it’s okay to be dishonest.
So, should you go out into the world and let all the children know Santa Claus isn’t real? No. Instead, let them believe and if they choose to ask you about it, have a mature conversation with them. Explain to them that while Santa Claus is not real, Saint Nicholas was a real person and that Santa was created as a symbol to keep the memory of his generosity alive. Just because someone is a child does not mean you cannot have mature conversations with them. They might be young, but they’re still humans with thoughts and emotions, so they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. After all, Christmas is about kindness, so society should respect children instead of lying to them.