Should Parents Lie to Their Children About Santa Claus?
As the parent of an inquisitive 2½ year old, I currently find myself fumbling to explain Santa Claus to him, of whom he is now quite aware. Should I emphasize that he is a storybook character and not a real person? Would he even know what the difference between real and make-believe is yet? Ultimately, I find myself confronted by the perennial parenting question that divides many a household: Should we lie to our kids about Santa Claus?
My own parents always dutifully marked some Christmas presents as if they were from Santa Claus, even well after we kids were past the stage of believing in that jolly old elf. I do not personally feel damaged by my parents sustaining the myth of Father Christmas, but a recent essay in Lancet Psychiatry warns otherwise. Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author claims: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”
Philosophers have taken the whole range of opinions vis-a-vis lying. The absolutist position, often associated with Immanuel Kant, holds that all lying is wrong, even if the lie is intended to be beneficial to the person lied-to. For Kant, an important test of the morality of an action asks whether I could will it that everyone act on the same basis as I do. Could I will that everyone also lies whenever they think it would be beneficial to the person lied-to? Truthfulness and honesty are foundational to a well-functioning society, and no one could trust anyone else if everyone felt they had such a right to lie. We would all be stuck foraging for our own food and building our own houses by hand, too suspicious to trust the contractor or the grocery store down the street for help. Even if the lies were supposedly for our own good, our sense of human dignity is offended by the notion that other people would be better able to decide for us what we need to know. Thus, so Kant and the absolutists hold, every lie is a threat to the social fabric.
This seems overblown. Lying, as a matter of fact, happens all the time, and yet society still stands. People still cooperate with each other. Even if exaggerated, the absolutist position lays bare one consequential risk of lying: a lie discovered can seriously harm the trust that exists between people. Concern over the loss of trust motivates McKay’s position against the Santa Lie, because the child-caregiver relationship is central to the child’s emotional growth. If we risk the loss of trust with the Santa lie and such a loss could have far-reaching negative consequences, why risk it at all?
Lying, to be justified, needs to have a good reason behind it. While no normal presumption against truth-telling exists, there does seem to be a presumption against lying, so argues the philosopher Sissela Bok in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. For Bok, this presumption against lying is strong and requires justified lies to be an alternative considered only as a last resort. Of course, parents who defend the well-crafted deception of Kris Kringle don’t claim they do it just to tickle their own fantasy; they believe it benefits their kids in important ways. First, Santa Claus is an effective vehicle for teaching moral lessons to children about generosity and kindness. Santa Claus is, above all, a figure to be admired for the fact that he gives so much to others without asking for anything in return. We want our children to also be generous and kind people, and it is more effective to give concrete examples of admirable generous people rather than simply telling our kids to be more giving. If children already love the Santa Claus story, why pour cold water on the opportunity to teach a moral lesson by telling them he is not a real person?
The other purported good of the Santa Claus lie is that it promotes creativity, imagination and wonder in children, and is, therefore, an important antidote to the narrow utilitarian rationality of adult society that suppresses so much joy. Francis Pharcellus Church’s famous reply to young Virginia O’Hanlon’s question concerning the existence of Santa Claus makes a similar argument:
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus… Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus… There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.
A Santa-skeptic may question whether insisting on the reality of Santa Claus is necessary to securing these goods for our children. For one, Santa Claus can still be shared with children without insisting on his reality, just as we already share many fun and morally exemplary stories with our children without the characters in those stories being present as flesh-and-blood living people. Second, Church’s concern sets up a false dichotomy: either we believe in the existence of fantastical creatures or we are dull, dreary people who cannot appreciate the beauty and wonder of human existence. We know plenty of people who write poetry and continue to wonder at the mysteries of the world without also believing in fantastical creatures.
So, the lie of Santa Claus’s existence may not be especially central to the goods it purports to provide. Clearly, it doesn’t meet Bok’s stringent criterion that it be an alternative of last resort. Though the justification for such a cherished deception is in doubt, what seems certain is that the Santa Clause question will remain contentious issue among parents for years to come.