When I became a parent nine years ago, I made this deal with myself: No matter how uncomfortable it might be at times, I would always tell my child the truth. Way too often, it seemed to me, parents risk the trust of their children by telling them lies — white lies, black lies, all the lies — and rarely are any of them really necessary or justified. Plus, honesty was a value I wanted to model.
That worked out great until Santa Claus came along and screwed everything up.
I don’t remember when my daughter, Maxine, first heard about Santa. Chances are good I wasn’t even aware of it. The symbol of “the spirit of Christmas” is so ever-present in America — steeped in our culture the same way God is steeped in our culture. As an American child, there was no way Maxine was ever going to miss the Santa boat.
SEEN IN THE RIGHT LIGHT, SANTA IS NOT A LIE; HE’S A MYSTERY
Still, it takes parental support to keep the Santa boat afloat, right? Parents buy the gifts; parents fill the stockings; parents take their kids to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap; parents help pour the milk so the kids can make sure Santa is greeted warmly when he shimmies down the chimney at night. And, if I didn’t want to burst the little bubble implanted in Maxine’s head by society, I was going to have to do what I said I wouldn’t: lie.
I’m not the first to have mixed feelings about Santa Claus. In his 1993 book, “The Trouble With Christmas,” Tom Flynn laid out five main arguments against engaging in the Santa myth with children:
- To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids.
- To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child’s developing intellect.
- The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear.
- The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so.
- The myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God.
Although I think there’s a whole lot of exaggeration in Flynn’s list, some of his points hit close to home. So it was with great relief that I read a second essay written by author Dale McGowan in his book “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion” — a counterpoint to Flynn’s arguments. In his essay, McGowan argued that “figuring out that Santa is not real” is a wonderful rite of passage for children, as long as parents tread lightly around the myth, and stay alert for the first hints of skepticism.
“I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority,” McGowan wrote, “determined as I was to let [my son] sort this one out himself.” Then, when McGowan’s son was 9 and asked point-blank whether Santa was real, McGowan turned the question around: “What do you think?”
“Well,” his son answered, smiling. “I think all the moms and dads are Santa. Am I right?”
McGowan smiled back and told the truth — and his son was no worse for the wear. McGowan’s attitude, which I think is the perfect combination between smart and fun, is the one I’ve tried to adopt as my own. In fact, like McGowan, I’ve come to see the Santa myth as a perfect opportunity to hone Maxine’s critical thinking skills, to sift through evidence, separate out what makes sense from what doesn’t, and come to her own conclusions.
Seen in the right light, Santa is not a lie; he’s a mystery. And it’s up to each little boy and girl to unravel the mystery for themselves.
Through the years, I’ve helped Maxine set out cookies for Santa and address letters to the North Pole. I’ve proclaimed that “Santa must have come!” when she has found her stocking bulging Christmas morning. But I’ve also made sure to expose her to evidence pointing to the truth. (Many books and movies provide evidence; so do the opinions of older/wiser children.) I’ve never rationalized the inconsistencies that exist within the Santa myth — why every mall has its own Santa, how Santa gets around the world in one night, or why some poor children don’t have toys on Christmas morning. These are questions for her to figure out for herself. And, while careful not to give anything away, I don’t say or do things that will necessarily deepen Maxine’s belief. I call it doing “Santa Lite” — passively supporting the myth without making overt statements about the truth of Santa’s existence.
Today, Maxine is 9 and teetering on the precipice between belief and non-belief — mature enough to figure it out but young enough to still fully enjoy it. When, in the past couple of years, she has asked me whether there’s really a Santa, and/or whether I believe in Santa, I’ve dodged the questions delicately, so as to avoid the rather common situation of ending the game before she’s done playing it.
“What do you think?” I always ask, channeling McGowan, and, when pressed: “You know me, Maxine. I have trouble believing things I haven’t seen for myself. But it doesn’t matter what I believe? What do you believe?”
But there’s no doubt about it. She’s close to leaving Santa behind.
About 20 years ago, after I moved out of my parent’s house, my mother gave me a Christmas curio that amounted to a family heirloom — a little Santa and two elves at the base of a pole labeled “Santa Claus North Pole.” Whenever you pull one of the elves to the top of the pole, he shimmies down on a spring. It had been one of my favorite things growing up, and Maxine, too, has delighted in it every Christmas since she was a toddler. She loves it.
I’ve decided that when Maxine figures out the Santa mystery for good — when she comes to me with all the evidence she has collected and tells me her conclusion — I’m going to treat it with a good deal of pomp and circumstance. “You did it!” and “Good for you!” “What were your clues? How did you figure it out?” In this way, I’ll underscore how the Santa story really is a rite of passage and that she should be proud to reach this new stage in her maturity.
Then I will present her with a very special gift — a bag of her favorite candies, along with the Christmas curio she loves so much.
Seems the least I can do for lying to her all these years.
Original published in 2014 on PBS.org by Wendy Thomas Russell