The Question of the Claus: Should the Santa Story Stay or Go in Secular Families?
Eighty-five percent of American four-year-olds believe in Santa Claus. But does the myth hurt or help in raising independent thinkers? Amazingly, science offers little guidance. Although it has become a nearly universal rite of passage for American preadolescents to discover that the most cherished belief of their childhoods was an elaborate parental lie, few researchers have studied the phenomenon—or if they have, few have opted to publish what they have found.
Hard data are so sparse that Santa’s defenders still trot out a famous child psychologist’s 1971 pronouncement that “the small child should be able to believe in Santa. . . . To hate reality is a likely consequence of being forced to give up fantasies too early.”1 This appeared not in a scientific publication but in the mainstream women’s magazine Ladies’ Home Journal; the famous psychologist in question was Bruno Bettelheim, who would later be discredited for concocting psychiatric principles and diagnoses out of whole cloth, allegedly causing some of his young patients enduring harm. Anyway, if you like unsubstantiated assertions, I’ll go with one by Canada’s George Brock Chisholm (1896–1971), first director of the World Health Organization, who warned that “any child who believes in Santa Claus has had his ability to think permanently destroyed.”2
There is no excuse for deceiving children. And when, as must happen in conventional families, they find that their parents have lied, they lose confidence in them and feel justified in lying to them.—BERTRAND RUSSELL
1. To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids. We know there’s no old man at the North Pole who visits all the world’s households in a single night, but that’s not what we tell our kids. Yes, Virginia, that’s lying. Some parents rationalize it as an innocent sharing of fantasy, but a 1978 study suggested otherwise: It found that children relate to Santa as real, quite differently than they relate to, say, storybook or movie characters. Children relate to Santa as a mundane reality as prosaic—and undeniable—as a wheelbarrow in the backyard. Clearly, for parents to pass on the Santa myth isn’t like passing on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It’s lying, plain and simple. So don’t be surprised if the child who caught you lying about Santa tunes out your other guidance on other issues as adolescence blooms.
2. To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect. Questioning Santa is the first attempt at critical thinking many children make. Yet parents often smokescreen curious children for asking why there are so many Santas at the mall, or wondering why Santa and Aunt Nell use the same wrapping paper. Frequently, parents punish youngsters for sharing their suspicions injudiciously with schoolmates or siblings. Ambitious parents may go to enormous lengths to bamboozle an inquisitive child into believing for another few months. Whatever else we might say about such parenting strategies, clearly they represent no way to teach critical thinking.
3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear. Hectoring kids to be good because Santa will detect any transgression that parents may miss is equivalent to warning children to behave because God is watching. The establishment of such parental “coalitions with God” defines a parenting technique that research correlates with negative child-development outcomes. Meanwhile, a child who’s “been bad” (itself a questionable concept) may dread Christmas Eve, expecting a telltale lump of coal to alert parents to some hitherto-overlooked misconduct. (A grade school classmate of mine dreaded the holiday because he expected to be exposed in a misbehavior he had up until then “gotten away with.” When Santa failed to rat him out with a stocking full of coal, that imposed further corrosive pressure on his naïve view of the world.) Some parents who recognize the danger in leaning too hard on “You better watch out, you better not cry” may strive to engender belief in Santa while avoiding the myth’s Big Brother aspects. To those parents I can say only good luck; a single hearing of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on the minivan radio en route to the mall can instantly undo all that careful work.
4. The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so. Proponents argue that belief in Santa teaches children the “spirit of giving,” whatever that is. But a 1982 study, one of few to address this issue, showed conclusively that the myth actually encourages selfishness. In that study, children who in other contexts requested unselfish benefits such as health or long life for family members invariably demanded material things when writing to Santa.3
5. The Santa myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God. Santa—a magical being who sees all and whose judgment can be swayed by shows of good behavior—uncomfortably resembles the way theistic children understand God at the same ages. The secular parent should worry that Santa belief in early childhood might bias youngsters toward later uncritical faith.
Some parents say the opposite, arguing that unmasking Santa actually inoculates kids against supernatural beliefs. Again, the available research offers inconclusive guidance. But I can’t help noticing that the relationship I suspect between belief in Santa and later religious faith—namely, that belief in the first makes belief in the second more likely—is direct and straightforward. In contrast, the proposed relationship between belief in Santa and later religious disbelief seems contrary, even tortuous. Lacking solid evidence that holding an unsupported belief now makes a child less likely to hold another unsupported belief later, why take the risk?
Secular parents have a choice . . . and a chance. Research shows that dissuasion works. Children whose parents explicitly, consistently discourage belief in Santa are unlikely to form the belief. So do your kids a favor. Make a conscious decision not to support irresponsible beliefs, and brick up that chimney.
TOM FLYNN is executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism and editor ofFree Inquiry, the world’s largest-circulation English-language secular humanist magazine. He is also a cofounder of the newsletter Secular Humanist Bulletin and director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum. His books include The Trouble with Christmas (1992) and The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).