Should Parents Encourage Children to Believe in Santa Claus?

December 21, 2009

A picture of Reba's collection of Santas taken by Reba Boyd Wooden.

My collection of Santas.

On Christmas Eve when I was probably 5-years-old, my father told me there was no Santa Claus and that I could stay up with the adults and help put the presents out but I was not to tell my younger brother the truth about Santa.  Christmas was never quite the same after that.  The magic of going to bed with anticipation and then waking up to presents was gone.  I also remember thinking, "So, when you are a certain age they tell you there is no Santa Claus.  When you get older, do they tell you there is no God? It seemed that God and Santa Claus were a lot alike--both watched you all the time to see if you were naughty or nice.

When my own children were born, I wanted them to believe in Santa at least sort of.   I wanted them to have the surprise of waking up to presents on Christmas morning with a feeling of joy and magic in the air.   But, if I remember correctly (my babies are 43 and 41 now so my memory may not be totally clear on this), I didn't try to go overboard to make sure that they didn't question. 

I think my son was a born skeptic.  He observed and remarked at 3-years-old or so that Santa had the same wrapping paper that I had.   My daughter based her continued belief on evidence that she had observed with her own eyes.   She actually saw Santa going in the door of a house on Christmas Eve as we were driving to Grandma and Grandpa's house.  She didn't seem to question that although she had seen him going in a neighbor's house early in the evening, he still hadn't made it to our house by the time we returned from her grandparents' house.  Wow, with having to travel the whole world in one night, he was sure moving pretty slowly!!  It seems that I didn't try to overly promote nor discourage belief.  I am not sure at what age they each figured it out for themselves. 

Dale McGowan , editor of Parenting Beyond Belief and coauthor of Raising Freethinkers , has this to say on the subject of Santa:

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.

Tom Flynn , Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism ,  Editor of Free Inquiry magazine, author of  The Trouble With Christmas , and known as the "anti-Claus,” quotes Canada's George Brock Chisholm (1896-1971), first director of the World Health Organization who said that believing in the Santa myth with its many physical impossibilities could "seriously damage" a child's "whole relationship with reality and whole ability to think clearly in terms of cause and effect."  ( Parenting Beyond Belief, pp.85-87)

Tom says we should, "Just say no" to "ho, ho, ho." and lists the following reasons:

  • To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids.
  • To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions.
  • The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.
  • The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so.  Rather than teaching the spirit of giving it encourages selfishness.
  • The Santa myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns.   The secular parent should worry that Santa belief in early childhood might bias youngsters toward later uncritical faith.  

So, then I did what any good modern researcher does, I "googled" the question and came up with several sites where this question is discussed.  Other reasons listed on wisegeek.com for not promoting the Santa myth are:

  • It discourages healthy skepticism.
  • The reward and punishment system is unjust.
  • It promotes materialism.
  • It is more about parents than children.

Christians who oppose promoting the belief in Santa may cite:

  • They do not want this Christian holiday dominated by belief in a pagan symbol.
  • Santa often steals the thunder of the birth of Christ and takes away from the true meaning of Christmas.

Some arguments in favor of promoting the Santa myth are:

  • Not believing in Santa Claus steals away some of the magic of Christmas.
  • Santa Claus is symbolic of the 'giving’ spirit of Christmas and thus related to Christ.
  • Childhood is the only place where such belief can occur.
  • When children give gifts, they are playing Santa Claus.   This encourages children to be part of the "great and wonderful symbol of generosity and miracles."

Next, I went looking for "expert opinions" from child psychologists.  On the MSNBC site I found an article by Andrea Thompson in which she quotes Child Psychologist, Bruce Henderson of Western Carolina University as concluding that :

Forcing an elaborate Santa Claus story on children serves no good purpose for child or parent. On the other hand, following the child's lead in fantasy play about Santa Claus is likely to do no more harm than imaginative play surrounding Elmo or Mickey Mouse. Parents can respond to direct questions honestly with answers appropriate to their children's developmental levels.

As I continued my google search, I found other parts from that same article quoting Dr. Henderson being used to take both sides of the argument. 

On MedicineNet.com , I found quite a few child psychologists and others quoted on the subject.  I will leave that for you to sift through for yourself.  

My next tactic was to ask CFI Indiana parents to respond to the question.  Here are responses from three of these parents:

Though our daughter is still young and really only getting into the winter holidays this year, we have started telling her about Santa.  At this stage of toddlerhood (3 years), Morgan is using a lot of pretend play to learn about and interact with the world, and Santa has become an extension of that.  In our household, generosity, good cheer, and concern for others are core values.  Santa is one of the ways we have chosen to teach our daughter about them.

As she gets older, I intend to tell her the various stories and myths surrounding Santa Claus, Saint Nick, etc. and the purpose behind those stories.  We will also discuss the different holidays celebrated during the winter and how those holidays came about.  Even before we start those discussions, I'm sure she'll quickly figure out that Santa isn't real, but for now, I think a little holiday magic makes the season understandable and enjoyable for her-- a CFI Indiana parent 

I  fail to see why it is okay to lie to children about the concept.  It doesn't make Christmas more fun for children.  I am quite convinced my children have just as much fun with the festivities and suspense of not knowing what they will be getting as any other child.  I can give two perspectives, too.  I felt this way when I was Christian, though my reasoning was different. 

When I was a Christian, I didn't see how it was okay to lie so blatantly to children about a pagan magical concept.  It seemed to me a very horrible way to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Not only do you have the lies and paganism.  You have the fact that teaching children that they should be good for Santa takes away from being good for God.  Also, when all of their concentration is on what they are going to get for Christmas from this magical icon (which fits the definition of a false god for Christians) then they are not concentrating on the reason for Christmas in the first place--the all important birth of our Lord.  Putting a nativity scene in a front yard or on a mantel and then going to church on Sunday doesn't detract from directing children to think about Santa instead of Jesus.

So, that was my Christian reasoning. Though this was my primary reasoning, I also had issues with the socioeconomic aspect, which I will touch on later. As a non-believer, the reasons for my distaste have evolved.  However, I still strongly believe it to be wrong.  When we read a fictional story to our children, we do not lie to them and tell them it is true.  We know that would be wrong. How do we reconcile lying to them about Santa?  In our household, we don't tell the kids Santa is real.  The younger two will still sit on a Santa lap and pretend in that way only children seem to be able to do--just as they are excited when they see a person in a big bunny costume at Easter. 

Knowing we (the parents) are the ones that influence the gift giving also makes a difference.  Many children today are given mixed signals with this horrible concept of Santa and his list of naughty and nice.  Some kids strive very hard to make the nice list to get what they want for Christmas.  If we tell them that is the reward of their virtue, then what do we tell them when Santa got laid off for a bad economy?  How does the family that lost their job, home, and everything else tell their children why Santa is giving them so little for Christmas and likely none of the big items they ask for?  Some people don't realize the message that tells a child is, "You weren't good enough."  I have no desire to do that to my wonderful children.  It's wrong. 

Our income was severely reduced this year.  We had to cut back, like many families, due to the economic downturn.  However, Amber and I didn't have to lie even more and flounder for explanations for why Santa is traveling light this year.  We just told the kids we don't have as much money and so now the kids know the limits of what they can get.  I'm so very glad we didn't choose to lie to the children and make it about who is good and who is bad.  Instead, my children know that we are giving them the best we can.   

More on the socioeconomic aspect, it's obvious that children compare themselves to one another in terms of materialism at school.  How do people actually think children of low income families feel when the rich kid gets everything from Santa and they get so little?  We are blatantly sending the message that rich kids are better kids by this concept of Santa and his naughty or nice list.  It can and does encourage animosity for the rich by the poor and encourages children of more affluent families to look down on the poor kids.  

We tell our children to not try to convince other children there is no Santa.  We tell them it isn't their place and many parents will get offended.  So far, we have had no problems.  We recently had a child at CFI Kids tell everyone that she believes in Santa and was picked on at school for still believing.  None of the kids that believe otherwise (which is most) said anything at all to the contrary. They simply agreed it was wrong of other kids to make fun of her for her belief.  I was impressed, I must say.   -- Joe Oliver (Joe is the coordinator of the CFI Kids program at CFI Indiana .)

We have done it both ways, and honestly...it didn't seem to have much of an effect on how the kids celebrate the holidays one way or another. We do not play Santa for the kids now, though I did with my 1st born a few times.
 
The thing with my children is that I've encouraged them to be reasonable young people, and they don't seem to really buy into things that are not realistic. Obviously they giggle at the thought of an obese man making animals fly that have no wings, and they question how a man could travel the world in one night without some sort of magical time machine or other unrealistic means.
 
We talk a lot about various fictional characters in our daily convos. One of my faves was about the Easter bunny. I never told the kids there was an Easter bunny. They knew the baskets were from me. I'd leave them on each of their bedroom floors so when they awoke they would find the surprise. One day my oldest asked me "Is the Easter bunny real?" I was quite shocked by this question given his age (8) and the fact that we never claimed the Easter bunny played any role in the delivery of the baskets. I presume because his school friends claimed the bunny was real he had a moment of questioning the theory.
 
So, I asked him "what do YOU think?" and he giggled and said "No, probably not real." and I asked why he thought that. He said "I'm not sure." So I asked him if he had ever seen a bunny hopping through Target while shopping for Easter candies and treats. He again laughed and said "no." I said that I shop every year for these chocolate covered bunnies, baskets, and treats and I've never seen a single bunny hopping around there myself.
 
I don't think it is the end of the world for a child to believe in such things, but I do feel like it is kind of pointless. Some say that I am robbing my children of such a magical time in life. I like to believe that while the other children are living in wonderment over all of these fictional characters that my children are living in wonderment over how big our galaxy is, and how much is out there that we really do not know about. About how life is formed, and how life ends. My children have plenty of magical experiences, and the best part about theirs is that they are real!-- Leticia Latinovich

So, is promoting a belief in Santa Claus harmful?   I would say, yes, it certainly can be.   I think it can cause a distrust of the parent because they lied to the child.   It can promote greed and selfishness because the emphasis is on asking and receiving and not on the child being the giver.   If it is promoted as a "naughty/nice" concept connected with receiving, it can produce undue stress and guilt in the child.   It teaches that the child of a rich family is better than the child of a poor family.  It can cause the child to be more vulnerable to other "magical thinking" traps such as paranormal claims, alternative medicines, and religion because they are taught to "just believe" instead of to think critically and look for evidence.  Of course, it could go the opposite way, and create a skeptic of religion and all other things that are not evidence based.  Could the belief in Santa at a young age cause the person to search for a substitute for Santa even as an adult? 

Is promoting a belief in Santa Claus beneficial?   I don't really see how.   That joyful feeling I got as a child could just as well have been from knowing that the presents were given by family.  In this case, it should be a two-way exchange with the child being encouraged to give a present/s to the other family members.   Those personally made by the child are probably most treasured.  That magical experience can also be found in nature and human interaction. After all, truth is more fantastic than fiction.

Is promoting a belief in Santa Claus benign?   Only if it is enjoyed as a fantasy just as other fictional characters and the child is asked age appropriate questions, given realistic answers, and challenged to look for evidence and to think critically if they continue to blur fantasy and reality.   Myths are interesting and enjoyable as long as we still know they are myths.  Especially, when the child questions, they should be encouraged to look for evidence and not told that if they don't believe in Santa they won't get any presents or are told to "just believe." 

So, enjoy all the myths surrounding Christmas with your children whether they be religious or secular but don't promote them as reality, especially when the child questions.  Use this questioning as a "teachable moment" to teach critical thinking skills.   These skills will serve your child well as they face a future of decision making in the real world.