Insanity Clause

This was one of my most-popular articles in 2009. If you enjoyed it, you might also enjoy:

I believe that it is ethically wrong to lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus. And, as it’s a topical time of year – and because I know that this view brings me into conflict with the views of many others (I’ve certainly had more than a couple of arguments about this before) – I thought that I’d explain my thinking.

"I'm not real, but don't tell anyone!"
"I'm not real... but don't tell anyone!"

Bias of background

I probably ought to come clean, first, about my own background. There’s a certain bias that people can have towards their own upbringing: the implicit assumption that the way one was brought up is somehow the best or the most-correct way. I’d like to think that I’m speaking from a position of rationality as well as morality, but I can’t deny that my judgment may be clouded by my own childhood.

I never believed that Santa was real, and was never encouraged to. My family played out a whole variety of modern, secular Christmas traditions, such as leaving out a mince pie for Santa, hanging stockings, and decorating a tree. But these were always understood to be what they actually were. There was never an illusion that the mince pie wasn’t being eaten by my dad just minutes after he’d checked that I’d finally managed to curb my excitement get to sleep (even without a belief in the patently mythological, Christmas can still be an exciting time for a child).

What’s the harm?

When I was growing up, I came into contact with many children for whom the Father Christmas myth was very real. I gather that they’re still remarkably common… and who can blame parents: perpetuating the Santa lie can provide a very easy and pervasive way to control the behaviour of their children!

For the vast majority of these children, the revelation of the lie was a harmless experience: over time, they developed doubts, from the childish (“We don’t have a chimney? How can Santa slide down radiators?”), to the logical (“Reindeer can’t fly! And how big is a sleigh that can carry presents for every good child on Earth?”), to the profound (“Why does Santa give the children of rich parents more expensive gifts than the children of poor parents?”). They’d hear stories from other children about the falsehood of the Christmas stories when they spoke to other children or, often, older siblings. Many would eventually challenge their parents on these lies, and most of these parents would then come clean, correctly judging that the lie had run it’s course. So what’s the harm?

There are some children who didn’t come off so well. I’ve seen children bullied at school and in social settings as a result of clinging to their belief in Santa. One kid I knew – bolstered by his mother’s ongoing lies (she would later claim that she thought he knew, but was just “playing along”) – genuinely believed in Santa until he was 14 years old, defying all argument to the contrary, and suffered so much that he ceased to gain any enjoyment at all from the festival for years to come.

I’ve spoken to parents who have attempted to justify their decision to lie to their children by dismissing it as only “a white lie”, something which does more good than harm, and I can see their argument. But for some children, as we’ve seen, this lie can spiral out of control, and even if this were to happen with only one in a thousand children, I wouldn’t personally want to take the risk that it was a child of mine.

One of Santa's biggest benefits is that he has a list of where all the naughty girls live.

That Magical Christmas Feeling™

A common response to my claim that lying to children about Santa is ethically wrong is that there is something particularly special (or “magical”, it is often said) about being able to believe in Santa. Those who make this claim invariably come from a background in which they were encouraged to believe in him, and they frequently talk of wanting their children to be able to have the same experience as them. (I would speculate that there’s a large crossover between this group of people and the group of people who would rather their children were brought up with their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, than be given the opportunity to make their own choices, too).

Having experienced life as an a-santaist, I can say that there never for a moment felt like there was something missing from my childhood Christmases. Children have a rich and beautiful imagination and a way of looking at the world which will find wonder and magic, if they want it, regardless of the untruths they’re told. Imposing false beliefs as truths on healthy young minds does not result in a net addition of “magic”. At best, all that is achieved is that the child fantasies about a specific lie, perhaps one that the child’s caregivers can relate to. We’ve discussed a couple of the worth cases already, and these aren’t isolated incidents.

Christmas can be a magical time anyway. There’s time away from school (for children of schoolgoing age), a chance to see distant relatives, the giving and receiving of presents (how can I have left this until third in the list!), following unusual and exciting traditions, eating special food, the potential for snow (at least in this hemisphere), and a time for telling special stories and singing special songs. Special events are magical, and that’s true whether or not you subscribe to any particular religious or secular holidays. For a child, birthdays are magical, bonfire night is magical (ooh! fireworks!), the summer solstice is magical: whatever you’ve got can be magical when you’ve got a child’s imagination.

Think back to whatever family traditions you had as a child, especially the ones you had to wait a whole year for. They’re all special, all by themselves. You can enjoy eating delicious chocolate eggs without believing in either a magical rabbit with a confusing reproductive system, the crucifixion of the embodiment of a deity, or spring coming forth thanks to the earned favour of the fertility gods. Sorry, what were you saying? I was still thinking about chocolate.

Santana - a full 100% more real, but only 95% less magical - than Santa

So, no Santa at all, then?

If you were paying attention, you’ll have seen that I said “telling special stories and singing special songs”. My childhood was a secular one, certainly, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t full of stories of a jolly red man, songs about cervines with nasal photoluminescence, and so on. I enjoyed stories about a gift-giving magical man, just like I enjoyed stories about anthropomorphic talking animals: and it’s okay to understand these things for just what they are: stories! There’s perhaps something a little special in stories about Father Christmas in that they’re told pretty-much exclusively at Christmas time (and, perhaps, a little much – how many Christmas-themed movies are scheduled for television broadcast this winter?), but we don’t have to treat them as if they’re real.

My rules are pretty simple. If you (a) know something to be false and (b) teach it to a child to be real with (c) the intent for them to believe it wholeheartedly and for an extended period of time, you’re abusing the position of trust in which that child has placed you. (a) provides an exception for religious upbringing, (b) provides an exception for relationships in which there is not a disparity of power, and (c) provides an exception for whatever so-called “white lies” you feel that you need: that’s a pretty hefty lump of exceptions, if you need them – but still people raise objections.

Here’s what Santa means to me. To me, “Santa” is, and has always been, the embodiment of anonymous gift-giving: the genuine “spirit of Christmas”, if you like. And given my way, that would be what I’d want to teach my children, too. I’m not for a moment denying anybody the magic of the season, I’m just saying that there’s a big difference between Santa as an abstract concept (like a storm “wanting” to break) and Santa as a real, albeit magical, being (like Poseidon sending the storm).

It’s a matter of trust

For me, this all comes down to trust. I don’t want to lie to my children. It’s not a difficult concept to understand: the only difference between me and a large number of other people is that they choose a different definition of “lie”. For the virtually all children who discover that they’ve been deceived about Santa, their trust in their parents remains fundamentally unharmed. For some, it’s dented for a short while but then comes back. But this still doesn’t make it right.

I want to be somebody who my children will always know that they can trust. I want them to know that I will not lie to them or deceive them. I want to be somebody who they can turn to for advice. I want to be somebody who they know will put them first, even in spite of tradition and convention.

That’s where I stand. Let’s here what you guys think.

Now this is the kind of Santa that I can get behind.

But first, there’s one more argument…

…that I’ve heard recently. I’ve heard it put that it’s beneficial to lie to children about Santa because it teaches them not to trust everything they hear, teaches them to be critical thinkers, etc.. That being taught a lie will toughen them against other lies that they will be given to them later in the big, wide, and cruel world.

This argument holds no weight with me. Do these same parents like to beat up their children “just a little” so that if they get into a fight at school, it won’t be so bad? Do they lock up and abuse their kids so that if they’re kidnapped and raped that it isn’t so hard on them?

In my mind, a lie that you keep up for years on end is no longer a harmless lie. When I want to teach my kids about deceit, I’ll perform magic tricks for them. The first time you perform a magic trick for a child, they genuinely believe it – how did he make that coin appear from behind my ear? Leave it for a minute or so (a minute can be an eternity when you’re a kid). Then I’ll show them how it’s done. I’ll teach them to do the trick themselves, and they’ll see for themselves that magic is an illusion. Plus, they’ll have learned a cool trick.

The world is full of many very clever illusions and tricks, and often you can’t see how they’re done, but that doesn’t mean that they’re magic. There’s no shame in not knowing all the answers, but looking for answers is a noble and beautiful thing. I want to foster in my children a natural suspicion of magic, so that they’re better-able to avoid being conned by those who would do them harm. And I can achieve this without lying to them for more than a few minutes at a time. Shove that in your stocking, Santa.

DISCLAIMER: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS ABOUT THE NATURE OF SANTA CLAUS. IF YOU BELIEVE IN SANTA CLAUS, PERHAPS YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE READ IT.

No offence intended to those who genuinely believe that Poseidon is the master of storms, naturally.

10 replies to Insanity Clause

  1. This made me laugh so much.
    Having never belived in santa either (probably your doing) at the start of primary school i got told off by one of my teachers when i pointed out that santa wasn’t real.
    I was taught not to lie but this lie was ok? confusing much?

  2. I remember coming to the conclusion myself that Santa didn’t exist – this may have been the point at which I noticed he had the same handwriting as my mum. Hadn’t really thought about what I’d do with my own children, though, so you’ve raised some interesting points (none of which I can really object to). It does to my mind pave the way for some interesting conversations between parent and child, probably to do with respecting other childrens “beliefs” and not bursting their happy-christmas-bubbles in the playground.

    Oh, and damn funny captions, Dan. Awesome!

  3. My mum *still* keeps up the pretence. It’s frankly creepy.

    I don’t remember ever believing in santa, but I can remember a time when I hadn’t yet gathered enough evidence to support my “santa doesn’t exist” theory. I think I thought that if I could come up with enough evidence and compose a strong enough argument, my mum would eventually admit it was all a lie. Apply whatever metaphor you like.

    In terms of my own kids, I think I’d like to have the fiction but in a camped-up, tongue-in-cheek way. I’d like to be able to do the stupid ‘evidence’ stuff (eaten mince pies, sooty footprints etc) without ever pretending it’s real. I certainly don’t want to use santa as a tool for discipline – I’d like my kids to do the right thing because it’s right, not in order to get presents. Quite how you achieve that, though, I’m not clear on.

  4. @Ruth: I suspect the answer to achieving morally-responsible children without threat of punishment is to install a deep sense of empathy into them, such that they are best able to understand, appreciate, and (hopefully) respect the feelings of others. IMHO.

  5. @Ruth Are “empathy chips” sounds like an alternative to “chip tax” – joining in the enjoyment of chips bought by someone else!

  6. Linked!

    I can’t remember a time when I really, honestly believed. I can’t say for certain that such a time never existed, but as far back as I can remember, I was humouring my parents and/or honouring Mum’s requests that I not blow the illusion for my younger brother.

  7. I agree with you. And my background is similar to yours in that I never believed. I humored my mom, but that’s about it. And much like Ruth’s mother, my mom still tells me she’ll be “talking with Santa soon.”

  8. Of course, I fully agree with Dan (well I would wouldn’t I). Christmas (and other events) with kids is great and I loved all the fancifulness of it, including the Santa idea. With all the kids we ‘pretended’ there was a Santa, but always confessed to the pretence as soon as questioned by the child. In my experience children ask all the important questions early on – often before the age of 3-4 – and I strongly believe people raising children have an obligation to answer such questions honestly at whatever level the child can understand – so none of them were brought up with belief that there was someone coming into the house and leaving presents or eating the mince pies we left out. But that didn’t detract from the excitement and fun of it all for me nor, I hope, for the kids. If you are ‘all’ involved in the pretence, and everyone knows that it’s just pretend, then it’s still fun – possibly even more so because of the emotional security that comes from being ‘in’ on it. To actually lie about it when challenged (especially when you both know you are doing it) potentially leads to unequal relationships where people simply ‘don’t talk about certain things’.
    In terms of teaching your children that people you trust can be deceitful my approach was through games. Once my kids were able enough to play games on the same competitive level as me and having (I hoped) instilled in them the appropriate ethical approach to ‘fairness’ and ‘trust’ in fellow-game players – I proceeded to cheat. I did this until ‘spotted’ at which point I immediately ‘fessed up. I hoped this balanced keeping the ‘trust’ in our relationship – by confession of a deliberate, and harmless(?) transgression – with teaching them that even people you trust can deceive you, so beware. It also coincided with the age at which Dan (and his siblings) start to clarify their own views on life and ethics (about 7-8) so was also useful for inspiring debate! And boy can they debate……

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