Should Atheists Teach Their Children About Santa Claus? November 19, 2013

Should Atheists Teach Their Children About Santa Claus?

Though I don’t have children, I’ve long assumed that when the time comes, Santa Claus would be a part of their upbringing. I mean, it’s harmless, right? Plus, as Dale McGowan wrote in Parenting Beyond Belief, it’s kind of like training wheels for God:

To pull or not to pull… that is the question

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.

Now, Sam Harris makes the case that introducing your children to Santa is harmful. Not because of the connection to religion, but because it exposes you as someone willing to lie to your kids for temporary amusement. (It’s an argument he makes in his book Lying.)

It all stems from a recent Jimmy Kimmel stunt where he asked parents to videotape themselves telling their children they ate all their Halloween candy…:

Harris writes:

Despite my feelings of horror over the whole [Kimmel] project, a few of these kids made me laugh as well — some of them are just so adorably resilient in the face of parental injustice. However, I am convinced that anyone who takes pleasure in all this exploited cuteness is morally confused. Yes, we know that these kids will get their candy back in the end. But the kids themselves don’t know it, and the betrayal they feel is heartbreakingly genuine. This is no way to treat children.

He’s aware that people will call him a buzzkill and someone who can’t take a joke, but he stands by his claim that parents shouldn’t lie to their kids, even about things that are seemingly innocuous:

As parents, we must maintain our children’s trust — and the easiest way to lose it is by lying to them. Of course, we should communicate the truth in ways they can handle — and this often demands that we suppress details that would be confusing or needlessly disturbing. An important difference between children and (normal) adults is that children are not fully capable of conceiving of (much less looking out for) their real interests. Consequently, it might be necessary in some situations to pacify or motivate them with a lie. In my experience, however, such circumstances almost never arise.

So what does all this have to do with Santa?

Children have fantasy lives so rich and combustible that rigging them with lies is like putting a propeller on a rocket. And is the last child in class who still believes in Santa really grateful to have his first lesson in epistemology meted out by his fellow six-year-olds? If you deceive your children about Santa, you may give them a more thrilling experience of Christmas. What you probably won’t give them, however, is the sense that you would not and could not lie to them about anything else.

We live in a culture where the corrosive effect of lying is generally overlooked, and where people remain confused about the difference between truly harmless deceptions… and seemingly tiny lies that truly damage trust.

While Harris’ point makes sense, it feels like he’s taking it to an unrealistic extreme. I believed in Santa, until I didn’t, and I can’t recall ever resenting my parents for it. It didn’t feel like a lie. It felt like a game. And once I knew the secret, I couldn’t help but play along.

Unlike the Halloween candy prank, the Santa lie is all about making kids happy and delighting in their joy, not upsetting and humiliating them. While there are no doubt exceptions, I don’t know anyone who lashed out against their parents once they learned the truth about Santa. And I can’t imagine the kids in the video, as they grow up, will still resent their parents for playing the prank on them.

There’s a difference between lying to your children habitually, which would obviously be a problem, and doing it on rare occasions for a particular reason.

I’m unconvinced that “tiny lies” like these are a basis for damaged trust later in life.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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