Self-conscious atheists, by which I mean those of us who are atheists for well thought out and intellectually or morally principled reasons, can be the sorts of people who are suspicious of the whole tradition of lying to children about the existence of Santa Claus. Could it be counter-productive to the already difficult task of trying to work against the human brain’s natural susceptibilities to supernaturalistic thinking to actively reinforce it in kids’ brains in the case of Santa? Or could it be an experience of being disillusioned out of a culturally pervasive belief that can help them see through the belief in God next? Or are these considerations not even the important ones. Is it simply wrong to send your children the message that you’re willing to go to deliberate lengths to lie to them during a period where they’re developing their ability to trust you? (If you choose the lie, it seems most kids can handle it but this article is worth a full read to think through how to deal with the kids’ reactions when the lie is exposed.)
In the video below on secular parenting (worth watching in full—for a fuller rundown of its contents if you want to jump to parts of particular interest to you, go here) Elyse Anders (at 20:44), Jen Peeples (at 23:16), and Dale McGowan (at 27:08) tackle the topic hilariously and insightfully.
My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!
This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.
The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.
“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”
I for one chose door number three.
“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.
I avoided both lying outright and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.
“What do you think?” I said.
“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”
I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.
“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”
He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”
That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.
And Dale drew the following lesson:
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.
Also on Patheos Atheism, Shanon Nebo has a nice piece at Dan Arel’s Danthropology blog about her own experience with Santa disillusionment as a kid and her stance against using Santa or the newer “Elf on the Shelf” as tools for manipulating children. Her piece is “Finding a Better Santa”. Shanon’s also written for Camels With Hammers before. She wrote an excellent piece about how she dealt with her son being told he’s going to hell.