Santa’s a very sensitive subject, it seems. So I’m not going to say much about him or how we handle him at our house. Instead, I’m going to link to two blog posts from opposite ends of the Santa spectrum.
The first, on Santa’s side, is from babycenter.com. It’s a post entitled, “Is Santa a fairy story or a filthy lie?” and it’s structured as a recap of a conversation between the author and her friend. An excerpt:
[author’s friend, about (who else?) Santa] “I just don’t think I’m going to lie to my child like that.”
Snort. “A lie? Really? Is that how you think about it? I mean, it’s not true, but I don’t think of it as a lie. It’s fun, it’s a little made up fairy story, like the tooth fairy. A lie is something that’s harmful.”
The only comment I’m going to make about this is to ask a question: What’s the difference between a fictional story and a lie? In my experience, when dealing with a fictional story, both the teller and the listener realize that it’s fiction. A lie, on the other hand, is when the teller knows they’re telling something that isn’t true but the listener doesn’t know it’s not true. But then, as Homer Simpson says, “It takes two to lie. One to lie and one to listen.”
The author of this blog also worries a great deal about kids of non-Santa families ruining it for kids in Santa families. I don’t really understand this concern. Does she also worry that children of atheists will “ruin” God for the children of families who believe in God? I’m guessing the answer is “no,” and I’m guessing the reason is that the parents in families that believe in God generally believe in God themselves.
The other blog post is from parentingbeyondbelief.com, the website by Dale McGowan for the book he co-authored entitled Parenting Beyond Belief. His post, which he apparently re-posts every year, is called, “Santa Claus—the ultimate dry run,” in which McGowan explains how Santa Claus is a way of explaining to children the nature of God. He wonders aloud what might happen to a child’s belief in God once they find out that their parents have been misleading them about Santa.
This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish…
I for one chose door number three.
“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.
While the “Does that sound right to you?” path might seem a reasonable way to get a child thinking about Santa Claus, it seems only slightly less misleading than telling a child Santa is real. When I ask my daughter, “Does that sound right to you?” she knows that what I mean is, “That’s not right, but I want you to figure out why.” It’s OK to do this, I think, but a parent is lying to himself if he thinks this question conveys no bias on his part.
In addition, I don’t think it’s necessarily a sound habit to get into to ask a child, “Does that sound right to you?” McGowan prefaces his explanation by saying, “with questions of belief” these are the three paths you can take. But I’m not sure that children necessarily recognize what things are a matter of belief and what things are matters that can be observed scientifically. There are plenty of things that are scientifically reproducible and even daily occurrences that wouldn’t “sound right” to a child, but are nonetheless true (in a scientific sense). For example, “Hey, Sport! Some people believe that even though airplanes weigh tons and tons, they fly way up in the air as a result of an invisible force called ‘lift.’ Does that sound right to you?” Or, perhaps more poignant to this particular author, “Hey, Kiddo! Some people say we’re related to apes. Does that sound right to you?”
If it’s an unfair and leading question to ask your child on one side, isn’t it also an unfair and leading question to ask on the other side?
I am a fan of encouraging my children to question things, but I’m also leery of encouraging them to divide matters of belief into “right” and “wrong.” I think as a parent, it’s my job to say, “This is what we believe in our family. How does that feel to you?” and perhaps, later, “What do you believe?” And I think it’s also my job to help my children determine what things we can make conclusions about based on observation and experimentation, and what things are simply a matter of faith. I don’t want them to grow to adulthood confusing those two things.
I’m not going to say what we do about Santa, and I’m absolutely not going to say anything about reindeer. Our family does what we do and other families do what they do. I can’t control what other children (or parents) tell my kids, let alone what other parents tell their own kids, nor would I want to (because I wouldn’t want anyone else telling me what to tell me kids). How about let’s all just hush our arguing about Santa and have a Happy Solstice?