Santa Claus: Innocent Fantasy or Harmful Lie?
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.
Playing ‘The Santa Game’ Without the Harm
So how exactly do you play ‘The Santa Game’?
By making sure that the make-believe world doesn’t cross over into our world — which is what leads us to lie.
For example, because the tooth fairy is supposed to trade teeth for coins, we tell our children the coin was left by them, not us. Because we tell our child that Santa delivers presents, or that the Easter Bunny leaves them eggs, we have to pretend to do that, often by being deceitful.
What we can do instead is tell the story of a kindly old man who leaves gifts for children in make-believe world, and we can give presents to each other ‘just like Santa does in the story.’ We can tell our child the fun story of the tooth fairy and swap teeth for coins, ‘just like the tooth fairy does in the story.’ The child would still know the joy of these fantasy tales, but there would be no deception.
Even with this approach there are kids who really want to believe Santa is real and that doesn’t have to be squashed — but you don’t have to lie, either. For example, when asked directly if Santa is real we can say, smiling, ‘I guess you have to figure that out for yourself,’ ‘What do you think?’ or ‘All I know is when I was little I put my stocking up and got stuff in it, and I think you should put one up, too.’ Many children say later that they knew deep inside but they chose to live as though they believed because it was fun.
Many kids take this approach (my eldest daughter included). Of course, there are those children that really want a straight out answer to their question or who don’t enjoy fantasy, and they will keep pushing for an answer. In that case the Santa game works great, and I think a response such as, “No, there isn’t a real Santa living in the North Pole, but it sure is fun to pretend, right?” is not going to hurt a child who truly wants to know the truth.
But it will hurt a child to know the truth when he or she really just wants a parent to play along with his or her desire to believe. It will also hurt a child, like my son, to be lied to in order to mix fantasy with reality. If we remember that our child is unique, we can let them lead us to find their joy so we can follow.
When my daughter was about 6 or 7, she asked me if we could leave out cookies and milk for Santa. “I know he isn’t real,” she said, “but I just want to pretend he is.” I thought that was perfectly fine, so we made some cookies especially for Santa each year since then and either her dad or I would eat a couple or take bites out of them and drink the milk. It was a un little tradition and we would all laugh about it and “pretend” that Santa had come and eaten them. We’ve had many discussions about it through the years and she knows not to reveal anything to her cousins, etc. who do ‘believe,’ just out of respect for how their family wants to celebrate the holidays. She’s 15 now and I am glad I made the choice to raise her telling the truth but letting her “fantasize”…I think it’s the honest way to do it.
The truth is that kids find joy and wonder in the world regardless of whether you create fantasies for them. They create their own and they marvel at the world without needing any more than bare-bones reality. Some kids enjoy fantasy game-playing, some don’t, but they don’t need it to know that the world is miraculous, so long as they have lots of opportunities to be joyful and to wonder without being told ‘stop that, be careful, put it down, come here, don’t dawdle, you don’t want that, that’s nothing special.’
Most important, they need to be able to trust the most important people in their lives to not be deceptive — a lesson I learned the hard way.
Scary Santa photo available from Shutterstock
Scott, C. (2012). Santa Claus: Innocent Fantasy or Harmful Lie?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 5, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/12/05/santa-claus-innocent-fantasy-or-harmful-lie-2/