Now that the holidays are upon us, many children around the world will stand in line for or write a letter to a jolly old man dressed in red, sharing their heart’s deepest desires.
But perpetuating the Santa Claus myth may set children up to realize that their parents are liars, psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay argue in a new essay in the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry. The thought of an all-knowing being who watches their every move (maybe with help from the Elf on the Shelf) may even terrorize them.
While the stakes seem low ― after all, how much harm could really come from a little fairytale? ― Boyle and McKay make several compelling arguments against perpetuating the Santa Claus myth.
1. You’re setting your child up for inevitable disappointment when they realize the truth about Santa.
Everyone remembers that moment they realized that Santa Claus wasn’t real, Boyle and McKay write. The disappointment is so searing that it creates a “JFK effect” ― people remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the sad news. For many people, they write, the holidays never again hold the same kind of magic.
Speaking as former children, both authors remember the abject disappointment when they found out that this Christmas magic was in fact human based. The spell was broken; the escape from reality that children and adults can share for a few months had gone. Christmas was never the same again.
2. You are laying the groundwork for your child’s distrust.
The authors cite research that finds young kids have “a more general tendency to assume that adults only talk about real things.” But after the years-long con is over, a child’s natural trust in their guardian could be somewhat tainted by the Santa experience ― exacerbated, no doubt, by the parents’ repeated denials and justifications for Santa when a child comes with questions or “evidence” about his existence.
Children must all find out eventually that their parents have blatantly and consistently carried on a lie for a number of years. Children may find out from a third party, or through their parents getting bored of the make-believe and making a mistake; both might affect the trust that exists between child and parent. If adults have been lying about Santa, even though it has usually been well intentioned, what else is a lie? If Santa isn’t real, are fairies real? Is magic? Is God?
3. The Santa myth serves you more than your children.
In addition to collecting the treats and sweets children leave out for Santa the night before Christmas, adults also get to cash in on a nostalgic sense of holiday magic that comes with perpetuating the “Christmas lie,” the authors write. Playing Santa for their children, they suggest, lets parents briefly escape to “a better place and time” where the use of imagination was encouraged and nurtured.
It seems that by returning to a fantasy world, there is a comfort in being able to briefly re-enter childhood, which was a magical experience for many. A time when imagination was accepted and encouraged but which becomes lost in the space and time of adulthood. The self-conscious recreation of myth seems to be as popular as it ever was. Might it be the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation of something better, something to believe in, something to hope for in the future or to return to a long lost childhood a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…?
“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,” Boyle concluded in a statement. “Whether it’s right to make children believe in Father Christmas is an interesting question, and it’s also interesting to ask whether lying in this way will affect children in ways that have not been considered.”
The effect of a parent’s lies on children
Emerging studies do suggest that parents’ lies may have a detrimental effect on a child’s behavior. A small MIT study on six- and seven-year-olds found that when an authority figure omits the truth, it may cause children to suspend their trust or be suspicious of anything else that authority figure says in the future. An experiment from the University of California, San Diego found that when children ages five to seven are lied to, they are also more likely to cheat and then lie in return.
So why do parents lie at all? It basically boils down to two reasons: to make children do something, and to make children happy, according to Gail Heyman, a UCSD psychology researcher. And at first blush, it might seem that the Santa myth accomplishes both things at once. It motivates children to behave well, with the promise of a Christmas day jackpot at the end.
But not everyone is as convinced as Boyle and McKay that the Santa lie may hurt children ― or that it even qualifies as a lie at all.
“Many people think the Santa myth is not a lie and is more like fantasy play,” Heyman said.
She says scientists are only just starting to understand the effect a parent’s lies ― big, small and holiday-themed ― have on children, and are nowhere near understanding what psychological effects a years-long Santa con may have on developing minds.
“At this point, there is no evidence that lying about Santa in particular is harmful to children, and may young adults tell us of fond memories of Santa,” she said.
How should conscientious parents approach Santa?
While there is currently no study to show that the Santa Claus myth does harm children, Heyman is partial to the approach astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson took with his daughter when she lost a tooth and asked him about the Tooth Fairy.
Tyson swapped his daughter’s tooth with a present while she slept, but the next morning asked her a lot of skeptical questions and encouraged her to talk to her friends about the experience. Together, his daughter and her friends decided that the next person to lose a tooth would hide it under their pillow without announcing its loss to anyone. After conducting this little experiment, they realized the Tooth Fairy was actually just their parents.
“I personally prefer the DeGrasse Tyson approach because I value critical thinking so much, and I think young children face enough challenges in figuring out what is real or not without their parents potentially adding to the confusion,” Heyman concluded. “I also think there are better ways to promote imaginative thinking.”
Gail Gross, a psychologist and child development expert, suggests a compromise: Share Santa with your children, but as the fable and tradition that it is, and not a magical being to believe in.
“Telling children the truth about the Santa myth can give them confidence in your honesty and support. Trust is based on experience, and if children trust you, they learn to trust themselves, and ultimately others,” Gross said.
How do you approach the Santa Claus myth with your children? Let us know in the comments what you tell them, and why.