Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lies We Tell Our Children

The best way to raise an honest child is to lead by example.  No one wants to lie to their kids, but we all do it.  We lie to protect them: “There are ghosts in the basement.  Don’t go down there!”  We lie to spare their feelings: “Fluffy went to a big farm where he can run and play.”  Sometimes, we lie to control them.

When I was growing up, my grandmother’s house was right next door.  One night when the family was there for dinner, my mother sent me back to our house to get something.  While searching for the item I stumbled across the cache of my Christmas toys.  I  didn’t need to compare those toys with the ones marked “Santa” on Christmas morning.  Finding them was all the proof I needed to fit the rest of the pieces together.  I don’t remember being  upset at the loss of a childhood fantasy, only excited that I had unraveled the mystery on my own.

Non-believers the world over struggle with the Santa myth when it comes to their children.  Discovering the truth about Santa Clause and the process of apostasy are too similar to be ignored.  We start projecting our fears and outrage on children who are really just interested in the end result of presents and candy.

I hate even the idea of lying to my son.  However, it is infinitely easier to invoke Santa as a behavioral modification system than the old “because I said so.”  Last year I outright refused to do it.  This year I find myself saying things like, “Do you think Santa just saw you jump from the couch to the love seat?”  I have said before that I have no intention of raising an atheist child.  My memory of that childhood discovery is part of the reason why.  I was so proud of myself for cracking the code at age seven.  I confided in my older sister who said that I would get more gifts if I played along.  She was probably trying to avoid taking the blame for admitting it to me.  The significance was discovering the truth for myself by using deductive reasoning as a tool.  If someone would have just told me that there is no Santa Clause, I may not have believed them.

I have noticed a subtle shift in holiday culture over the years.  Not that long ago no one would ever consider telling a child that there was no Santa.  The social censure was enough to keep most people from doing that.  In the decades since I was a child, the mythology has shifted to be more about the power of believing in Santa Clause in spite of all evidence the contrary.  That’s right.  The marketing and storytelling has taken a faith-based approach.  The animated movie The Polar Express comes to mind: with the bells that can only be heard by those who “truly believe.”  I can understand why some non-believers would be upset by this.  The magical man who watches all of your deeds and enacts an annual judgement will not reward you if you do not believe in him.  Last year I watched a woman slap her pre-teen daughter in a department store for asking if Santa was real.  This mother was no doubt attempting to preserve the magic of the holiday season.  

Eventually, my son will put these pieces together.  It happens to everyone.  At six he is already asking some of those logic-based questions about reindeer and their ability to fly.  We talk often about myths and legends and while I occasionally reinforce the Santa myth, I also provide a framework and a language for him to use when he finally deciphers the illusion.  Sound familiar?  By giving him the tools and encouraging critical thinking I can help guide him through the first great apostasy that most of the Western world experiences.   I can indulge this part of his fantasy life the same way I participate in (epic) light saber battles in the back yard.  It’s OK to have magical thinking when you are an actual child.   



Alessia L. said...

Love it! We love Santa Claus and have to constantly defend our choice to teach him to our kids. Magic and imagination and jolly fat men who deliver presents are wonderful memories of childhood. They have plenty of time to be cynical adults, I say let them be children. Although we do not tell them "fluffy went to a farm". We've talked death and explained the best we could, honestly, without scaring the crap out of them. Consequently, the five year old now thinks our bodies decompose and become trees. So every time we see a tree, it's a dead person. (I blogged about it when he was 3:

Merry Happy to you and yours!