I once believed that lying to children about Santa was morally wrong but I no longer do. Cynics find much good in Santa-culture, our mass media-corporate retail complex deploys the lie seasonally, it fuels the perpetual acquisitiveness a flourishing economy requires. But I seek benefits beyond the materialistic. Propagating the Santa story is among the most instructional, least harmful deceptions we can share with our kids that will teach them not to believe what people tell them on trust-alone. It is a culturally-transmitted misbelief with adaptive, epistemic, and ethical value.
I’m not talking about the Santa myth as allegory, where Santa represents loving kindness. Myths are just stories that may or may not be true and, hey, they are entertaining and connect people. But we can teach the values and limits of hope, love, and charity more clearly without help from Santa. The story to which I refer goes like this: Santa exists, not merely in concept or the imagination. He watches, judges, and visits our homes on Christmas Eve and rewards good children with gifts, etc. There isn’t a shred of evidence for Santa, in actuality, and no adult really believes in him. It is a mighty powerful myth, as besieged parents of 2 to 7 year-olds know. We present it as literally true to children so that we can manipulate their thoughts and actions.
Most Americans report believing in Santa when they were children. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey finds that one-fifth of Americans say they are the parent or guardian of a child in their household who believes in Santa, and 69% will pretend that Santa visits their home this Christmas Eve. Parents even pretend to believe this when kids are dubious: “One-in-five parents whose children do not believe in Santa (18%) say they will pretend to get a visit from Santa this year, as do 22% of those who are not the parents or guardians of minor children in their household.”
We do this because we don’t really think that telling this story is wrong, but it is a lie. Despite the cold logical consistency of deontologists who rebuke us for lying to genocidal or otherwise depraved persons, we don’t accept that all lying is wrong. In fact, lying to children is especially good for them. Much can be learned from this episode in their young lives at so little cost. The Santa story is not the worst lie we can teach children, it is also not the best. This conspiracy of elders which kids must contend with exercises their nascent rationality and autonomy. It primes them for questioning all of the stories people tell.
Children don’t have much choice about what to believe, they are poor discerners of fact from fiction. But children are future autonomous, moral agents and this is especially why we should lie to them before they are fully-fledged, so that their filters and shields emerge early as they become rational. The world is filled with deceptions, we do them a great service with this benign story. Children are well-adapted to believe that parents are looking out for their interests but need to learn that even these people are not reliable truth-tellers. People who love us and seek our best-interests will deceive us, sincerely, even if they are well-intentioned but ignorant, short-sighted, or misguided. True love and truth telling are uncorrelated.
Could we get the benefits if we told them Santa was make-believe at the outset? Perhaps, but this lie is so systematic, accessible, widespread we are fools not to take advantage of it. By age 10 most people don’t believe it, they realize and accept that they have been deceived for egotistical reasons. As parents and teachers, when we discuss the implications of Santa with mature children we can show them, rather than merely tell them, that they cannot just accept what others assert. The Santa story is corrosive to the faith and confidence we extend too readily to loved ones and authority figures. It also exemplifies the imaginative power of the human intellect in preserving the appearance of truth in a problematic story, however much we wish it were true. The Santa story as a plausible hypothesis fails when we test it. Use it to show children how to check the math. If Santa spends only 5 seconds visiting each of say 20 million homes, he spends well over 3 years delivering presents. We derive a result inconsistent with his legendary 24-hour delivery time-frame. Reindeer cannot travel that fast, etc. The story falls apart.
By the age of 10, with this one myth, children may learn much. People speak falsely, deliberately. The people whom you ought to trust most will deceive you if they believe that it benefits you or us to do so. If people who love you will lie to you, for whatever reasons, then you can’t accept that whatever they tell you is true or even that it is what they themselves believe. No people are reliably honest. All of us have had, and probably still have, widely-held beliefs regardless of whether they are true. Also from the Pew study: Roughly three-quarters of adults (73%) say they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Among the religiously unaffiliated, 32% believe it.
Voltaire warns us:
'Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.'Teaching a misbelief that makes children sensitive to inconsistencies in character, testimony, evidence, math and logic is morally permissible. The Santa story does all of this. Deceiving kids about Santa is prosocial. Use it to probe the limits of honesty, integrity, compassion. Once exposed, the Santa myth is an antidote to the totalitarian trap of traditional, authoritarian, faith-based thinking.
Pass it on.
Department of Philosophy