Monday, May 14, 2007

Is Santa a Lie?

Richard Brown argues that it's wrong for parents to lie to their kids about Santa:
It is commonly recognized that we have a duty to be truthful and yet millions of Americans engage in the most elaborate deceit imaginable all aimed at duping their children... Santa Claus is portrayed as real, not only in the story but also by the parents. No parents pretend that Darth Vader is real but when I was on a plane on Christmas Eve the PILOT announced over the intercom that he had spotted Santa on the radar!!!! And, while it may be Ok to omit certain information in order to protect a child it is absolutely immoral to actively perpetuate a lie.

However, I don't really think this is (necessarily) lying. Such an interpretation would be excessively literal-minded. Not all statements are genuine assertions, meant to be taken literally. Kids are well versed in pretense, as Chris explains at Mixing Memory:
Cognitive psychologists, especially Jaqueline Woolley, have developed rather sophisticated ways of understanding children's ability to distinguish fantasy and reality. As I've discussed before, children are pretty good at separating fantasy from reality, but in cases of acceptable fantasies like Santa Claus and imaginary friends, children seem to exhibit a third ontological category, "pretend," which they have in addition to "real" and "unreal." While there are individual differences in children's ability to make the fantasy-reality distinction, overall, by about age 3, children are pretty damn good at telling pretend from real, even if they may play as though the pretend is as real as anything else.

So, I think it's a good thing for adults to engage children's imaginations by pretending with them that Santa is real. I agree that parents shouldn't deceive their kids, e.g. into thinking that Santa is real in the same way as Grandma. But children are sensitive to playfulness, and should pick up on the game if their parents play it right. At least, that strikes me as the ideal. To joylessly pop the pretense is not to advance the cause of truth and learning. It's merely to call a halt to play.


  1. Interesting defense. Is this really whay you think most parents are doing? Engaging in group pretense WITH their children? My impression is that this is decidedly NOT what they are doing (at least early on, after the kid finds out they may all keep up pretenses, but that is an entirely seperate issue). If it were really just pretend, and everyone knew it, then why do people get so upset when you tell their children that there is no Santa? And why do children get so upset when they find out that there isn't one?

  2. I'm more with Richard Brown on this. The Santa Claus myth comes somplete with threats and promises - if you don't believe, you won't get any presents. This holds children hostage to irrational beliefs. I'm sure that I'm not the only person to have questioned while a child, only to have been cheerfully threatened of the consequences should I continue down that line of thought.

  3. I think we're all missing the real point here; which is that allowing children to believe in Santa Claus will end up with them going to Hell, after they turn to murder and terrorism.

  4. Just to provide all-important anecdotal evidence: the shared pretense is exactly the basis of the Santa situation with our kids. The transition from actual belief to the pretense was painless and has preserved alot of fun. Best regards - Steve Esser

  5. hmm I dont like it...
    My default position is always the truth so if my daughter asks I'll tell her exactly the truth unless I have a REALLY good reason not to.


  6. I would argue that Santa Claus stories are flat-out stupid in addition to being immoral.

    And both factors contribute equally to my decision: don't lie to children.

  7. children are pretty good at separating fantasy from reality? so how come there are so many religious people around? and is it just a coincidence that they tend to be children of religious parents?

  8. A good mother, I wouldn't lie to my kids, so I only told them the truth about Santa. My seven year old came home with this invective: "You LIED to me! There is a Santa Claus! I saw him myself. At the mall! What kind of mother are you?"
    You can't win.

  9. Richard,

    I think you're phrase "pretend that Santa Claus is real" is perplexing.

    In one sense, when you are pretending, the things in the pretend ontology take on a qausi-reality. When kids pretend that a cardboard box is a spaceship, I suppose that there is a sense in which within the pretense there really is a spaceship taking off in the living room. But of course there isn't anything flying in the living room, and none of those within the pretense are disappointed when their box is unmoved on the floor.

    In another sense, pretending that something is real is precisely the problem with the Santa myth.

    Whereas a box could be a spaceship in another pretense, only someone dressed like Santa can serve as Santa in the Santa pretense. And whereas kids are not disappointed when their box hasn't actually moved off the living room floor, children are really disappointed when the real cookies they left our for Santa are not really nibbled.

    In my view, this indicates that the Santa myth is not just fun and games. Children are forming beliefs about reality in the Santa case and not in the spaceship case. The kids don't stay up late into the night to pretend-see Santa, they stay up late into the night to really see Santa, and this is infelicitous .

  10. That's an excellent point Jack. Also, when you tell the kid that the box is not a spaceship they say "DUH! I know it isn't!" But when you tell them that there is no Santa they do not say "DUH!" they say "Oh no! Yes there is..."

    Kitty, you can win, just explain that it is part of an elaborate lie on society's part not yours.

  11. I'd just note that while kids may put Santa in the third ontological category Chris mentioned, probably most don't do that for a chunk of their young life. It may not be traumatic for many to find out there is no Santa Claus, but that's typically because by the time they learn it's probably a welcome relief. (i.e. the evidence is catching up to the tale)

    As to the ethics, I can't say much there. It seems harmless. And if, at worse, it teaches kids that parents aren't fallible and that some tales are lies, is that bad? Seems like at worst a very useful life lesson.

  12. I agree with the general attitude expressed here. My only complaint is that the argument hasn't been pushed further. Plato thought most poets should be banned because they lied about the gods. I believe the same about St. Nicholas. How utterly ridiculous it is to allow children to imagine! It makes me cringe to find children imaging that the laws of physics can be violated—and by a flying fat man! (Everyone knows that's logically impossible.) Heaven forbid that they should go to wildlife reservations in search of "magic" reindeer. While we're on the subject of magic, David Copperfield, and all magicians, should be shot. How dare they lie to kids with their "magic" tricks! Everyone knows the world is "miserable, solid all the way through." Moreover, I'm pretty sure somewhere there's a study which indicates that children who believe in Santa end up psychologically damaged or something. While I'm at it, Disney World should be imploded. To heck with Walt! He has kids believing that Mickey Mouse is a real creature. A talking mouse?! Yet another logical impossibility! Enlightenment should definitely start in the first grade, probably with a little Voltaire and Rousseau. And by the third grade children should be well immersed in Hume.

    (To be sure that no one is psychologically damaged beyond repair, I must confess that my first sentence was a lie. And yes, for those who noticed, that was a Prestige reference.)

  13. oh please, Don!
    consciously convincing people into believing false stories is the same as "letting people to imagine"?!? well, the first prize must go to Dick Cheney, then! what a philanthropist!

    are you seriously suggesting that a person cannot be happy in this "miserable world" without taking elaborate fairy tales seriously?

  14. Hmm, okay, I'm happy to defer to others' judgment that most kids are led to literally believe in Santa. That seems kind of unfortunate, given that the option of mutual pretense still allows us to avoid the sort of joyless literalism that Don deplores, but without any need for deceit!

  15. Tea,

    I don't think lying to people about politics--life and death matters--is the same as telling children that a fat man can fly (given that he owns a magic sleigh). But as I suggested you should protest against magicians and Walt Disney too. Part of the joy of childhood is innocent credulity, which will naturally wear off as one matures. If, however, you want to build a recovery center for victims suffering from "I just found out Santa isn't real"-induced trauma, be my guest. I'm not sure how many visitors you'll get though.

    If you, Tea, are of the opinion that kids ought not be told that Santa is real, that's absolutely fine with me; I honestly couldn't care less. But if some parents choose to do the opposite, why should we give a hoot? I don't mean to treat this subject entirely lightly, but at the end of the day it's a fat man with a sleigh and some magic reindeer. They're not being taught to kneel at the feet of Baal or (God forbid) God, or something like that. And it's a belief that only manifests itself for (at the most) a month each year, and for only a few years. Whoopty freakin' do!

  16. Don,

    I'm not claiming that people frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after they learn that Santa isn't real. I agree it's a sort of "white lie" that tends not to produce much damage, and may, on balance, even produce more joy than sorrow. My point is, however, that it's nonetheless a LIE. Lying consists in consciously presenting falsities as facts. Watching cartoons, reading fairy tales etc. usually consists in some sort of "pretending", and I agree with Richard that, when it comes to this kind of stuff, kids are usually very good at figuring out that it's in fact a game of pretense. It's one thing to watch cartoons together with your kids and laugh at the antics. It's something else to deliberately take time to sit your kid beside you and tell her that: "Yes, that's exactly what happens in real life! If a large fridge happens to fall on you, your head may become flat, but there will be no pain or blood or broken bones. All you need to do is shake your head a bit, and you'll be right back to normal!"

    I'm sure that there are ways of referring to Santa in those acceptable "we're all in on the joke" ways. It's deliberate lying, though, if you repeatedly tell them in a very serious tone that a very real fat guy won't be bringing them presents unless they behave.

  17. Tea,

    I don't have time for a thought-out response but, briefly, I will say that I understand your point. I will add, though, that there are many "white lies" we tell kids and many white lies we tell each other, child or not. So it seems silly to me to pick on Santa. Also, when I was referring to Walt Disney I was talking about Disney World where kids see Mickey Mouse in full costume and believe (some of them do) that it is the "real" Mickey Mouse. And of course believing that one can withstand, without pain or injury, falling fridges is a belief which is not at all innocuous, whereas belief in Santa is.

  18. Is this for real? You are missing the point...a lie is a lie, if you think it is OK to tell lies then you need a good justification, none has been given here. Also, it is not harmless, it teaches children that lying is morally permissible and it also very often cause children to wonder what else they have been lied to about (like for instance God)

  19. Richard Brown,

    If your point was that a lie is a lie then you should have focused on that and not on Santa, which is one white lie out of a myriad of white lies. And if you think it teaches children to lie then the known facts seem to go against you since there isn't an, or I am not aware of any, abundance of children who reason as such: "My parents lied to me about Santa; therefore, it is morally permissible to lie." Nor does there seem to be an abundance of children who, when being scolding by their parents for lying, look back coldly at them and say, "What about Santa? Have you forgotten about that, you hypocrites?!" And neither, as far as I know, has realizing that Santa doesn't really exist compelled any child into a state of parental scepticism. Of course in the above examples I am being somewhat facetious but I know of no instance where belief in Santa has been harmful, as you claim it is; and if there can be found an instance then there definitely isn't a pattern of it. In all honesty, I find that claim--that belief in Santa is harmful--utterly ridiculous and directly contrary to the facts.

    This sort of intense concern about the negative effects that belief in Santa has on children seems, very clearly to me, to be an blatant chimera. And if you care not so much about Santa as about white lies and lies in general then why give Santa all the heat? What about magicians and Walt Disney and the countless common white lies which people tell on a daily basis (rather than just once a year)? And if you're suggestion is that this Santa thing ought to be stopped and all Santa paraphernalia, photos, movies, cartoons, books, etc. ought to be destroyed and anyone caught perpetuating the Santa myth should be publicly scorned and rejected, then my question to you is: "Is this for real?"

  20. Richard Brown,

    I was going to write this follow-up comment right after my last one, but I got caught up in watching the end of the Suns-Spurs game. I actually agree with you more than I made it seem. We agree that the Santa thing is a lie. We just disagree, it seems, on the harmfulness of it. An interesting discussion, though, would be on lies in general. I was once of the belief that all lying was morally impermissible (I even argued that on this blog). I have come to question that since I'm not sure about, for example, the wrongness of lying to save lives or of harmless "white lies."

    I can very much understand your position, Richard B., since you think the rule "All lies are morally impermissible" so obvious as to not have doubt cast upon it by the aforementioned instances. I do not think it that obvious though. This, I believe, is where we mainly differ. I just can't bring myself to get worked-up over a white lie which seems so harmless and, though still I lie, done with good intentions. To me it's sort of (though not at all exactly) like proclaiming, "Just laws should never be violated" and then proceeding to give people tickets for going 51 in a 50. My reaction is basically, "Yeah I get it--but come on now."

  21. Don, what other examples do you have in mind? Disney stories and the like aren't lies, because they're not intended to be taken literally. (Similarly with magic, I should think -- the audience is expected to be amazed, but not necessarily any more than that. It's just a show.)

    Incidentally, I don't think anyone's suggesting that Santa merchandise be outlawed. Presumably the suggestion is that parents should be honest with their children about Santa's non-reality.

  22. Richard,

    I would disagree that the characters at Disney World are not meant, for young children at least, to be taken literally; they are, I think--at least in the same way as Santa in the mall. And magicians lie, or at least deceive, by having kids believe that they have made a card, coin, or whatever disapper. And many children believe that they have, when they in fact haven't. How is this different other than that the deception is not communicated through words? Other examples would be any common white lies that are told--e.g., "That looks good on you," "You sounded wonderful," "This tastes great," etc.

    If the end result of the belief-in-Santa-is-bad position is not to outlaw everything Santa oriented then I am unclear of the exact position. Is it then that, ideally speaking, we should not in fact outlaw the Santa lie but just look down on everybody who perpetuates it? (Of course one could suggest your pretend scenario, but I don't know of any instance where kids pretend that Santa is real. And I'm not sure how parents would offer that to their children. It would seem odd for one to ask his or her child to pretend there exists a large man who lives at the North pole, and pretend he has a magic sleigh and magic reindeer, and pretend he delivers gifts through a chimney while at the same time saying, "But it's really just me.") I mean, in the end what does parents being honest with children about the non-reality of Santa amount to?

  23. In either case, the actors themselves are playing a neutral role -- they engage in pretense themselves, and leave the child's role undefined. Whether the ultimate effect is mutual pretense or deception, depends on the context provided by (most typically) the child's parents. I think it's just fine for parents to encourage their kids to engage in fun pretense with such actors. That's obviously far more imaginative than taking the whole world literally (and thus being literally deceived by them).

    The other so-called "white lies" are, again, typically no such thing. They're not literal assertions, because everyone in the conversational context recognizes them to be polite, empty formulas -- meant to express solidary, not one's honest critical judgment.

    As Nagel puts it in his wonderful paper, Concealment and Exposure:

    "If I say, "How nice to see you," you know perfectly well that this is not meant as a report of my true feelings -- even if it happens to be true, I might very well say it even if you were the last person I wanted to see at just that moment, and that is something you know as well as I.[3] The point of polite formulae and broad abstentions from expression is to leave a great range of potentially disruptive material unacknowledged and therefore out of play... [Note] that one has to keep a firm grip on the fact that the social self that others present to us is not the whole of their personality either, and that this is not a form of deception because it is meant to be understood by everyone."

  24. Don,

    Since you're the one who quoted The Prestige above, you must remember the observation someone (I think it's the Michael Caine character) makes in the movie about the importance of not making your tricks seem too real: you don't want the audience to actually believe that the woman has been cut in half - you just want them to wonder how it's been done without letting them figure it out. But you do *not* want them to actually believe that what they just saw actually happened that way! They'd run screaming out of the theater and report you to the police!

    Again, my point is that it depends a lot on how you present the issue. It's ok if you simply introduce the idea of Santa, let your kids play with it, but also not worry too much if they start figuring it out. It's another thing to refer to Santa in the same way you refer to other, existing people, and keep convincing your kid that the guy *is* real even when they start doubting it or start stressing too much about whether they've been good all year long.

    Like you, I'm also far from believing that every lie is impermissible. In the case of murderer at the door, lying is morally obligatory in my opinion. But even white lies must serve a certain purpose, and I think they are at least prima facie suspect when they serve no one else but the liar. If kids can actually gain something valuable from taking Santa literally, then go ahead. But I think it's a much better idea to foster imagination, fun and play alongside with skeptical thinking and an appreciation for the value of truth.

  25. Don you say "If your point was that a lie is a lie then you should have focused on that and not on Santa, which is one white lie out of a myriad of white lies."

    I did focus on that. That's, like, kinda the whole point. You keep insisting that this Sant business is just one little white lie out of many, but that is manifestly not the case. When I tell you that you look good in a, in my opinion, horrible outfit it is JUST ME that is lying yo you, but in the Santa case it is a conspiracy by the WHOLE SOCIETY to keep kids in the dark (sort of like a Trueman show kind of scenerio). I mean, THE NEWSCASTERS on the news (THE NEWS FOR GOD'S SAKE) track Santa'a progress!

    As for the anecdotal 'evidence' that kids do or don't reason in a certain way (btw this migt make a nice topic for an experimental philosophy study...anybody interested?) I am not much impressed, it seems to me to show that you do not know a lot of kids...but even if that isn't the case (it is after all an empirical question that could be eaisly addressed, and I might be wrong) I do not see what relevance the 'consccious reasoning' of chilren has to the point that I am making. The point is that you are saying, BY EXAMPLE, that lying is morrally permissible, and if you think that kids do not notice this, and emulate their parents, then you are mistaken.

    Also, I never suggested that all lies are morally impermissible, in fact I have several times denied that Kantian claim. What I have said is that for a lie to be permissible there must be some reasonable justification for it (the murderer at the door example is a perfect example of what a reasonable justification for lying is).

    You also ask "I mean, in the end what does parents being honest with children about the non-reality of Santa amount to?"

    The answer is simple. It amounts to showing respect for the intellect of the child and to instilling in the the value of truth (as Tea said). There are plenty of real life magical things in the world, we do not need to lie to our children in order to encourange them to be imaginnative or creative.

    Finnally, I think the other Richard (if I may call him that :)...he may well think of me as 'the other Richard' ;^) has made a very good point when he talks (as Kant himself did) about the difference between the case where all sides know that the truth is not in play and where the other side expects the truth. That is why it is morally permissible to pretend WITH the child that Santa is real, for then all sides know that they are pretending. I mean, if parents told their children 'we are going to play a really fun game...Santa...blah, blah, blah....' that is fine (though silly, but so what?), this, however as I and others here have argued, is not what is currently going on...

  26. Richard,

    Everything you say about magicians and Disney actors I could say about Santa.


    I absolutely agree that parents should not override their kid's doubt.

    Richard B.,

    Of course I can only go off of my first-hand experience, i.e., myself and my friends. In this regard I know of no one who has been traumatized, psychologically or morally damaged, or harmed in any way through a childhood belief in Santa. I admit that my personal experience could be contrary to the norm. But I have no reason to differ to you on this regard either unless you have extensive proof—polls, studies, etc.—which indicates that belief in Santa is detrimental.

    Also, when I asked what parents being honest with their children about the non-reality of Santa would amount to, I meant if the suggestion is that all parents should tell their kids that Santa doesn't really exist, and if that suggestion where actualized, then what would the end result be? Would it not be (barring the "let's engage in a superfluous game where you pretend that Santa exists even though you know it's really me" scenario) that everything Santa would be weeded out of society?

  27. Correction: defer, not differ.

  28. This thread reminds me of a similar one there was in Pharyngula some time ago about (male) circumcision. Some opposed it based on the absolute moral rule "one should not perform irreversible changes on another's body without consent and without serious health reasons" (analogous to the absolute "not telling unnecessary lies" principle against Santa) while others argued that it was harmless, that people generally do not resent it upon growing up, and that it has value as a cultural tradition -all arguments that can be made for Santa as well.

    I am undecided on the circumcision case because I have heard conflicting reports about its potential consequences, but in the Santa case I favour the second argument. (Which is kind of strange considering I am Jewish atheist!) There seems to be value in the shared cultural traditions about Santa, and clearly people do not resent having been "lied" to about it, because they normally repeat the "lies" on their children. It all seems rather inoffensive. Lies are generally bad because of the indirect utilitarian reason that they foster mistrust among people and disregard for reality. But a set of "localized" lies told specifically in a context of a cultural tradition and only to children of certain ages does not seem to have those bad effects once the children grow out of it, so I see no strong reason to object to it.

  29. Yeah, Alejandro's point about the "localized" impact of cultural traditions seems like a good one.

    Richard Brown -- what do you make of my previous suggestion that the broader culture and public actors (newscasters, etc.) are playing a neutral, one-sided role, that can become either deception OR mutual pretense depending on how parents situate their children with respect to the cultural practices?

  30. I recently did some research on the effects of the Santa story on children. Here are some things that might be relevant to this thread:

    1. Some people do pretend play with their children about Santa, rather than tell them that Santa really exist. They might be a tiny minority but they do exist (cf:

    2. In the vast majority of cases, childrens appear to be unharmed by the Santa story and happy to perpetuate it. There is also no evidence that most children distrust their parents or come to believe that lying is permissible.

    3. In a few exceptions, children do appear to be traumatized by discovering that Santa does not exist, or they develop distrust for their parents.

  31. Hi Richard, I am not sure what to make of that suggestion...if you think, as I trend to, that a lie involves intention to decieve on the part of the speaker, then I think that the newscaster's role will be determined by their intent...I also think that they intend to decieve and so count as lying...on the other hand if you like Kant's distinction that focuses more on the expectation of the hearer (as you have indicated that you do, I think) then it would be the case that the same utterance could be both a lie and merely a pretense....which striles me as odd...


    what kind of study was this? How did you operationalize 'unharmered by the story'? Did you determine whether those children lied to by their parents were more likely to lie than children who engaged in knowing pretense with their parents? Finally, did you ask questions to children who really believed and still believed, really (used to) believe and no longer believe, really used to believe and now pretend to believe, versus always pretended to believe?

  32. Ah, well, my thought was that the newscaster's (and other public actors') intent is simply to play this open-ended role, and not necessarily to deceive. Evidence: I wouldn't expect them to be disappointed, or to feel thwarted in their aims, if they learnt that kids were just playing along in mutual pretense, rather than taking their Santa-related proclamations literally. But a wannabe liar would, of course, be thwarted in such a case.

  33. That's an interesting suggestion. Iam not sure I share your intuition about what they are up to and whether or not they would feelthwarted. They give no idication that they are pretending, and as newscasters they speak with the authority of truth on their side (it is not pundits who announce this, but the anchor and the weatherman who claims to have spotted Santa on his radar). It seems to me that they are saying something that they know to be false and which they intend for children to believe (literally). The whole point of this stuff is not to engage in some fun and games but to add an air of reality and credulity to the Santa lie.

    Maybe we should ask some news casters? :)

  34. I'm with Richard. I think Santa is just a lie and I'm disgusted with that pilot for lying about seeing Santa on his radar.

    Another thing that bothers me is when a rude shopclerk told a crying child that "Santa has cameras all over the store and can see you being bad." I would have reported her to a manager. The child WASN'T bad; he was merely tired.

    And yeah, why do people get upset at Santa being outed to their kids. What, they want their kids to go to college falling for that darn Santa lie?

  35. What are we teaching the children about value with the santa lie? Be good for material rewards and is that being good for the right reason? For that matter the whole concept of heaven and hell does that not defeat the purpose of being good and honest to your fellow man? Should not being morally and ethically good be done just for that reason and not based on a system of rewards and consequences. I just had a baby 2 months ago and being a new father i am having to ask my self alot of very hard questions about my own beliefs and regardless of my beliefs i do not want to force them on my child. At the same time i do not want him to be with out direction. Is my point coming across? I am a very confused person at this point in my life.

  36. It seems to me that parents get caught up in the cultural Santa deceit either because they can use it to manipulate behavior, or because they think that "real" is necessary for kids to enjoy the game. I would like to address the latter. We think that "real" is important because we are adults. To kids it isn't important at all. Imagine insisting that they believe that their doll is a real baby. They know tht it is both doll and baby, depending on the moment and their engagement in the game. In fact "real" can get in the way of fun. There are many elements to the story that can be frightening - like a man coming into their house in the middle of the night without invitation. When we teach Santa as a story and a game that practically the whole world is playing - then we can encourage them to reshape the story with whatever more wonderful idea their own imaginations can conceive. They get to play the roles of all the characters in the story - even Santa himself. There is no need to explain why families play it different ways. There's no spoiler because what's to spoil? It's a game of make-believe. Believing in something or someone moves our personal power away from us. Make-believing is something we totally control ourselves. There really is a happy way to enjoy Santa and maintain integrity and magic. I wrote a book about it, "The Santa Story Revisited - How to Give Your Children a Santa They Will Never Outgrow".


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.