As Christmas approaches, many atheist parents might be wondering if they should tell their young children about the infamous obese man in a red velvet suit, who goes around the world (overnight) in a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer, slides down chimneys (or possibly picks the locks), and delivers presents (but only if you have been really well behaved).
One of the major issues for parents is that they don’t want to encourage their children to believe in a fictitious male, with grandiose powers, who is always watching to see if you’ve been “naughty or nice,” and then decides whether you’ve made the cut… because let’s be honest, we’ve heard enough of those stories already.
There may be other reasons for not making Santa a part of your holiday, but I suspect that the desire for your children to be skeptics who think critically, aspire to facts, and don’t fall prey to delusional thinking, is a huge motivator! All that combined with the fact that some people find Santa a bit creepy and don’t want to support mass consumerism (but that’s another post).
It isn’t all bad news, though. Santa Claus is a great way to get your child to start using his/her critical thinking skills, a way to practice thinking their way to reality. As Dale McGowan points out in his book Parenting Beyond Belief:
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.
I plan to do the Santa thing with my children. In general, make believe is crucial to children’s development of creativity, empathy, learning, and problem-solving. I like to think of Santa as a make-believe game that may go on for a number of years. There may be nothing magical about Santa himself, but there is something “magical” in a child’s eyes on Christmas Eve and the anticipatory delight is truly contagious. I want my children to experience that as well as many other secular family traditions that we hope to create for them. For us, the holidays are about family, friends, fun, food, giving, being appreciative of what you have… and just a little of the frivolities of the commercialized Christmas, including decorated trees, stockings, tinsel, and (of course) Santa.
I will let my daughter be skeptical and ask questions, and will allow her to come to her own conclusions and to eventually discover the “truth.” I won’t push the story, telling her continuous lies and fabricating information just to prolong her belief. That would be too analogous to the indoctrination of children that I so despise within religion. Should she for some strange reason continue to believe in Santa well past an age that we think is “healthy,” we will then tell her the truth.
For many atheists — especially atheist parents — this time of year can cause great angst because it isn’t always easy to escape the pressures of family, friends, and society without sacrificing your own beliefs and values.
Parents are free to make their own choices, but I would encourage you to allow your children just a little room for myths and fantasy. Because, combined with a little skepticism and a whole lot of critical thinking, they should turn out just fine.