Sunday, November 30, 2008

Santa is a Tool

We are not a Santa Claus family. We are not a Winnebago family, either, but this does not seem to generate as many objections as the thing about Santa Claus.

Each year hundreds of millions of adults lie to children about the existence of Santa Claus. I just cannot get on the bandwagon here, folks. Of course, as an atheist family (more on that another time), we are used to not being on the bandwagon. That’s okay. The bandwagon is a bit crowded for our tastes.

It is not because I’m an absolutist about lying. I’m not. But I do think one should try to avoid lying to one’s children unless something really important is at stake. It has to be something really important because it has to override what is always at stake in communication with one’s children: trust, respect, mutual understanding, and the children’s welfare.

Many people seem horrified when I tell them we don’t do Santa. I wouldn’t be surprised if Child Protective Services gets a few calls about us each year. I am asked whether I know how much fun I am depriving my children of by denying them the mystery of Santa Claus. But think of how much non-fun I am depriving my children of by denying them the mystery of God! God is no fun at all, and his earthly institutions, like church, are really boring. But perhaps that is irrelevant. After all, I have a few seriously Christian friends who don’t lie to their kids about Santa, and I respect that decision, even if they don’t compensate for it by disbelieving in God.

Two questions arise. First, how much fun is believing in Santa Claus, anyway? And second, is it enough fun to warrant lying about?

For the first question we are looking for the amount of marginal fun believing in Santa has over non-lie-based alternatives. Which alternatives? We could get rather fanciful here (movies and ice cream sundaes in Disneyworld!), but let’s stick with the mundane: decorating your house, getting together with your family and friends for a big celebration, and exchanging lots of presents, plus anticipating all of that for weeks, if not months. Hey, that’s pretty fun. Now how much extra fun do we get by adding belief in a generous and jolly obese man from the North Pole with a team of flying reindeer? Some fun, I bet. But we haven’t finished our accounting yet, as we have to subtract from the good stuff the chief negative of believing in Santa Claus: eventually learning that this belief is false. For many kids that can be quite a downer. Still, for the sake of argument I will grant that on balance Santa Claus adds more fun to the holiday season than a plausible alternative.

That said, we can ask the second question: is the marginal fun added by Santa worth lying to our kids for? It hardly seems so, given the goods at stake in communication with our children. We recognize this, I think, for there are all sorts of lies we could tell to our kids about imaginary beings that would be really fun for them (fairies, trolls, elves, magical birds, invisible hamsters, etc.), but we don’t. So why do we tell the lie of Santa Claus? Cultural inertia? That everyone does it? Those are not good enough reasons.

I do have a theory about why the lie of Santa Claus persists. It’s that Santa Claus is a tool. No, not in the way your neighbor who mows his lawn at 8am on Saturdays is a tool. Let me put it this way. Who is Santa, from the kids’ point of view? He is not a parent, so he doesn’t necessarily love you, and thus a present from Santa is not guaranteed like presents from Mom and Dad. You have to be well-behaved to benefit. And you really do have to be well-behaved, for while Santa is fun and friendlier and not as abstract as God, he is just as interested in how you are behaving (naughty or nice), and like God he sees all in this regard. If you were a kid, then, you would see Santa as God’s jolly deputy.

God’s jolly deputy serves and protects. He serves to remind the children to be good, and he protects the parents’ dwindling supplies of headache pills from being used too quickly. That is, he is a tool by which parents manage their children: an easy way to elicit joy while motivating good behavior. There is nothing parents like more than to see their children simultaneously happy and well-behaved, so the incentive to use tools that achieve this, like Santa, are quite high.

The lie of Santa Claus is usually justified by appealing to the benefit of the lie to kids. But that benefit, on balance, seems rather small. Instead we should look at who bears the cost of perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus. It’s the parents, of course. They buy the decorations, bribe older siblings to keep them from spoiling the secret, wait on snaking lines at malls so the kids can sit in Santa’s lap, and put a lot of energy into keeping the myth alive. Why are they bearing this cost? What are they getting out of it? Perhaps a little peace, a little quiet, and some evidence that they really did, once, teach their children to be good.

Of course, they could get those things just as easily without lying.

P.S. If you haven't already heard it, you should check out the hilarious story by David Sedaris on the Dutch version of Santa.


DomesticFather said...

This is a an interesting take on the Santa argument, which might be a touchy subject in my house when my daughter is old enough to understand Xmas. I've always (well, since I discovered that Santa wasn't real) thought that lying to children because you think their naivete is cute doesn't necessarily send the best message. It's almost like the whole thing is a practical joke.

You should submit this to the next Skeptical Parent Crossing. Or any of your articles. I've been going through your archives and it's good stuff.

Philosophy Dad said...

Thanks, DF. Funny you should mention Skeptical Parent Crossing. I came across it via your blog just the other day.

Upon reflection, I think some ideas in the post have to be refined somewhat, since I'm in favor of joking around with kids (including some practical jokes), and sometimes joking technically involves lying. The lying is on a different scale than the Santa lie, and for a different purpose, of course. Perhaps a post on joking around with kids is in this blog's future.

DomesticFather said...

Ah, but that's the great thing about blogging: looking back at our posts allows us to refine our thinking, and it lets other people comment on our thoughts while they might still be in draft status.

I am also not so uptight as to never play a practical joke, but I remember thinking "Why would my parents say that?" when I worked out that Santa couldn't exist.

Anonymous said...

Hi Philosophy Dad. I really enjoyed and agreed with what you wrote in this post.

We also don't do santa because we are just not comfortable lying to our sons (5, 3, 1 years).

(Oh, and thanks to DomesticFather for leading me here!)

Anonymous said...

Me again. Just remembered this post from Stephen Law on lying to children

Philosophy Dad said...

Glad you liked it, Rob A, and thanks for the link to Stephen Law's post on lying. I have to say that I didn't find any of his pro-lying arguments convincing. I think I'll take up some of these in a separate post.

Brian Vinson said...

Well thought. I agree that Santa is completely a tool (yes, including the other meaning as well), a tool for behavior management (as well as a breaking-and-entering tool who steals my cookies and milk). That's all I hear from other parents... "Santa won't come if..."

All that does is teach kids that the ultimatums their parents set aren't worth the paper they aren't written on.