Against Santa

22 December 2016

Around this time of year, many parents—God only knows how many—lie to their children about Santa Claus.  Youngsters are presented with an account of a man who flies through the air, descends through chimneys, and distributes presents to those kids who are “good”—that is, kids who conform to the behavioral demands of their elders. And it’s not just a matter of words. Children are enjoined to leave milk and cookies for Saint Nick, and food for his team of reindeer. Their disappearance overnight is then presented as material evidence that Santa has been by. As if this isn’t enough, kids are at the center of what amounts to a massive cultural conspiracy (“Santa’s Grotto” in the mall, songs, cards, movies, cartoons, and so on) all in support of Santa Claus Realism.

I think that lying to children about Santa is wrong and I wish that adults would stop doing it. 

If you are like many people, this will get your back up. You might see me as a philosophical Grinch, a latter day Scrooge muttering “Bah! Humbug!” under my fetid breath. You might think that I’m just an egghead wants to spoil a perfectly innocent and enjoyable Christmas custom (a foot soldier in the so-called “war on Christmas”). 

If that’s what you think, then you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Let me make my case….

Many of my highly educated, academic friends—philosophers and non-philosophers alike—participate in the Santa Claus deception. These are people who unequivocally condemn the lies told by the rich and powerful to manipulate the poor and powerless, who unequivocally endorse the ethic of respect for persons, and who applaud the practice of speaking truth to power. But when it comes to telling their kids about Santa, these principles seem to vanish like melting snowflakes. Ask them why they think it’s OK for adults to lie to their offspring about Santa Claus and suddenly it becomes acceptable, or even entertaining, for the big powerful folks to pull the wool over the eyes of the small vulnerable ones. 

What happens when Santa apologists get called out? Their first move is usually to deny that telling kids about Santa Claus is lying to them. “Telling kids about Santa is telling them a myth, or a story, but it’s not a lie.” This response doesn’t hold water. It amounts to lying to oneself about lying. When you tell someone a fictional story with the intention of getting that person to accept this fiction as true, then you are lying to them. This is neither complicated nor subtle; telling children that Santa Claus is real obviously counts as a lie. 

Once it’s reluctantly granted that the story is a lie, the Santa apologist’s second line of defense is to claim that this lie is good for children. It’s true that lying is not always morally wrong. If an axe murderer comes to your door at midnight, brandishing a bloody weapon, and asks politely if your children are at home, everyone (except Immanuel Kant) would say that lying is unequivocally the right thing to do. But we need to be very careful about swallowing claims that lying to people is for their own good. All too often, the lies turn out to be for the good of the liars rather than for the good of those who are lied to.

So lets assess the purported benefits of lying to kids about Santa Claus. I’ve regularly heard three, none of which stand up to scrutiny (there may be others).  Number one on my list is the claim that lying to youngsters about Santa makes Christmas fun for them. Really? It’s far from obvious that pretending that Santa exists would make Christmas any less fun, and might even make it more fun. Number two is the assertion that getting children to believe in Santa Claus enhances their imaginative capacities. This seems clearly wrong. Simply accepting what one has been told—however far-fetched—does not require much imaginative horsepower, whereas pretending that something exists (which is only possible if you know that he doesn’t exist) exercises the imagination-muscles far more effectively. The third justification is social. It’s said that believing in Santa is good because it helps them fit in with their peers. A child who goes to school spouting the truth about Santa Claus’ non-existence, it is said, risks upsetting the other children (and their parents). Is this really true? In my experience as a child who was never lied to in this way, children who have faith in Santa are relatively impervious to the contrary point of view. And suppose that some other children do have their belief shaken. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Should one’s children be told religious lies, or political lies, or racial lies so they have the same beliefs as their peers? I don’t think so. 

Now, let’s consider what’s wrong about lying to children in this way. One reason to refrain from lying about Santa is that it undermines children’s grasp of reality. We are born into a complex, perplexing world, and we are confronted with the formidable task of understanding how the world works, a big part of which is learning to distinguish truth from falsehood, fantasy from reality. This is difficult to accomplish under the best of circumstances. Telling children lies about Santa Claus needlessly throws obstacles in their path. Another reason to avoid the Christmas deception is that it undermines trust. Children rely on their parents to help them make sense the world, and deception is a betrayal of that trust. Finally, lying about Santa is manipulative. It promises presents in exchange for being “good” instead of (to paraphrase the well-known Christmas song) cultivating the attitude of being good for goodness’ sake.

I think that the conclusion is clear. The most precious present that you can give your children—not just at Christmas, but also at any time—is truth.