Most progressive parents know that lying to our kids is not a good idea — it’s not respectful or kind, and is likely to erode the trust our child has for us.
However, what about Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and unicorns? Is it okay to tell our child that Santa Claus and the like are real? Are these just innocent ‘white lies’ that we all tell our kids so their faces light up with joy as they indulge in the pleasure of make-believe?
Or is it a dangerous path that deeply affects our child’s capacity to trust adults when they eventually find out the truth?
Both my husband and I grew up believing in Santa and never felt betrayed when we figured it out. However, my eldest son, Jack, was told Santa was real, and boy was I unprepared for the fallout when he eventually found out the truth.
I can still remember the look on his face of dismay, confusion, sadness, and incredible anger when he discovered that I — the person he felt he could trust the most in the world — had lied to him.
He looked directly at me with such sad, tear-filled eyes and said, “I will never trust you again.”
He did (eventually) and we moved on but, many years later, he still occasionally mentions it and pulls me up if I say anything remotely resembling a white lie to his younger sisters. He has turned into the ‘lie police’ in our house (no bad thing!). Needless to say, I have regretted my original approach to Santa ever since.
From my counseling work, I have discovered I am by no means alone in this experience. Just like my son, many children are devastated to find out the truth about Santa.
We were one of those families that really played it up. We baked cookies for Santa and left out carrots for the reindeer, on Christmas morning there would be some half-eaten cookies and some strangely chewed-up carrots on the plate. Santa wrote letters and everything. In hindsight I wish I wouldn’t have played that much into it. Draven, 11, was one of the ones who felt really betrayed… He gets the whole idea behind the spirit of Santa, but truly feels we lied to him for many years. He just told me he doesn’t even want to set up a tree this year because Santa isn’t real, so why decorate. His feelings of betrayal have put a dimmer on the season for us for the last 2 years. If I had it to do over again I wouldn’t play so much into the make believe. I would let the child lead and I’d follow.
Some children take the feeling of betrayal and confusion into adulthood, and it has long-lasting effects on the parent-child relationship.
Some families go a bit nutty on the Santa hoax — my parents did. They actively did things to make it look like Santa had visited and told stories of hearing noises on the roof or just missing seeing him. I don’t think my younger brother bought it all as long as I did, but I definitely felt betrayed when I found out it had all been an elaborate lie, and that feeling lasted a long time.
Lying to our children about Santa, or any other mythical figure, isn’t kind or necessary. Our children will still be able to enjoy the wonder of make-believe without our fabrications. On the flip side, some parents, thinking they’re being honest and progressive, go too far and kill all the joy of Santa. However, there are gentler approaches in between outright lying to children about Santa and exposing the whole thing as a cruel hoax. These approaches are motivated by joy, love, respect, and imagination.
In our house we have always played Santa, but it has always been an imaginative game and she has always known that he isn’t real. She is 11 now and we still play the game and it’s still magical and fun. But that’s always all it’s ever been, just a fun game.
So how can you keep the magic of Christmas alive for your children without betraying their trust? It is important to remember that all children are different when it comes to fantasy. Some take things more seriously than others and are more literal. Some fall right in with the game. Some catch on to the whole ‘spirit of giving’ thing and see Santa as part of that. Some get their feelings hurt and end up bitter about it. And some are downright terrified about the thought of an elderly man coming into their house at night!
My daughter was terrified of Santa coming into her home, so we left her presents at Grandma’s house. It satisfied her to an extent, but she was still really anxious about the whole thing, and was afraid when she saw people dressed as Santa. I wish I told her the truth because she really didn’t get any joy from it.
Playing ‘The Santa Game’ with our kids can be great fun for all concerned. Just like we might talk about fictional characters such as Dora, or Power Rangers, Santa can fit right in! Going out of our way to try to make our kids really believe there is a man living in the North Pole with his wife and elves, who rides around on a sleigh just isn’t necessary. It is still possible to really get into the whole Christmas spirit as much as our children wish by following their lead, maybe by decorating the house, telling stories, watching movies, going to carol services, present-giving, baking, and dressing up.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Dec 2012
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Scott, C. (2012). Santa Claus: Innocent Fantasy or Harmful Lie?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 8, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/12/05/santa-claus-innocent-fantasy-or-harmful-lie-2/