Sometimes the smallest choices present the hardest dilemmas. I’ve been facing one such this year, which is the question of what, as an atheist parent, I should tell my son about Santa Claus.
It sounds silly, but this was one of my biggest parenting dilemmas so far. It was certainly a harder decision than, say, vaccination, which presented no difficulty at all.
I’m not usually bothered by peer pressure, but this is a special case. It seems cruel, in a way that’s hard for me to define, to deny my son the chance to participate in a tradition that so many millions of other children get to enjoy. At the same time, I’d feel dishonest about deceiving him into believing in a supernatural entity, even one as harmless as this. It’s contrary to the ethic I use to guide my own life and that I hope to teach him.
Luckily, the decision was partially made for me. I didn’t have to make a conscious decision to teach my son about Santa, because he learned about the concept more or less on his own. It’s almost inescapable around the holidays, even if you don’t watch TV (he watches a little TV, but most of that is PBS, so he sees next-to-no commercials). We read him a lot of books, and most holiday-themed kids’ books talk about Santa. He has a book version of The Night Before Christmas which he particularly likes.
I also didn’t have to encourage my son to believe in Santa. He immediately latched on to the idea and wanted to know more about it, with no prompting from me. Granted, he’s 2 years old, and that’s not an age where kids draw a strong distinction between fantasy and reality. Even so, the idea of Santa had an immediate appeal to him in a way that other concepts and fictional characters didn’t.
As a point of contrast, I can say – just a bit smugly – that he’s also been exposed to basic information about Jesus, and he didn’t show any instant fascination with that fictional character. (So much for those apologists who insist that everyone has an innate knowledge of Christianity being true.) But even after passing those hurdles, I had to confront the question of whether I should validate and reinforce his belief, or whether I should tell him the truth in as age-appropriate a way as possible.
One thing I’m resolved about is that I’m not going to tell my son about Santa Claus just because I want to “preserve the magic of childhood”. That’s a stale cliche which I reject. The implicit reasoning is that a child’s life is more beautiful or more meaningful if they’re taught comforting fictions about supernatural beings, but I don’t believe that for the same reason I don’t believe it about adults.
The world is awe-inspiring enough without a supernatural gloss on top of it, and that goes double when you’re a parent. When you’re raising a child, everything is magical – in the sense of causing spontaneous joy and wonder, the thrill of curiosity satisfied, or the feeling of being blown away by the sheer beauty of the cosmos. Children exhibit all these characteristics more deeply and profoundly, simply because everything is new and amazing to them. When you teach a child something, you can vicariously experience the rapture of learning about it for the first time.The same goes for the traditions we teach our children: gift-giving, decorating Christmas trees, and all the other seasonal rituals we reenact at this time of the year. They get their power from the way they tie us to millennia of human history, and they’re just as real and just as meaningful whether or not they come with tags of myth and superstition attached to them. Understanding why humans have long felt the need to celebrate at the darkest and coldest time of the year, and why so many cultures have independently invented their own gift-giving figures, tells us something true and important about human nature.
With all that said, I’ve decided I’m not going to disillusion my son about Santa. I’m going to let him go on believing as long as he wants to, but for a different reason. When I wrote about the ethics of Santa Claus in 2006 (!), I was considering the problem from an abstract perspective, but I mostly agree with what I said back then:
On the one hand, this teaching is used to accustom very young children to unquestioning supernatural beliefs. On the other hand, we do eventually disillusion children about the reality of this figure, and is this not a valuable lesson about rational skepticism and the inadvisability of putting total trust in authority figures? Is it not possible that getting children to realize the truth on their own is a more potent lesson in skepticism than if we told them the truth from the beginning?
I don’t want my son to believe anyone absolutely, not even me. I want him to learn and internalize the principle that something doesn’t have to be true just because lots of other people say it is. Santa Claus is one of the earliest lessons that most kids get in this kind of rational skepticism. It’s a lesson in the value of asking questions and making up your own mind. And precisely because most kids love the idea of Santa so much, it also teaches the even more important lesson that something doesn’t have to be true just because you want it to be.
To keep peace with my own conscience, I’ve decided that I’m not going to directly lie to him. If he comes to me and asks outright whether Santa is real, I’ll try to guide him to the truth, maybe with a response like, “That’s a good question, what do you think?” Helping him untangle what he believes and why he believes it, as well as leading him to the inherent absurdities of the idea, could be a useful early introduction to the Socratic method of reasoning.
And when he’s old enough to figure it out, there are other moral lessons that branch off from that knowledge. I really like the idea from an old viral Facebook post about “being a Santa“: teaching a child that once he knows the truth, he has a responsibility to do a secret good deed for someone he knows. It’s a very humanist way to reinterpret a longstanding tradition in a way that preserves its meaning while leaving the unnecessary supernatural elements behind.