This Christmas, Consider Not Lying to Your Children

by Jane Devin on 11/29/2012

The American tradition of gleefully lying to children about Santa Claus (and the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny) is so embedded in our culture that even calling the lies “lies” raises hackles.

Parents don’t consider themselves liars, it seems, as long as the lies they tell are fun, or part of a grand tradition shared by millions of others. Lies told to children are harmless as long as they bring about desired behavior, involve gifts, and spark imagination.

He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Along with this beloved holiday song, there are Elves on Shelves and cautionary tales of lumps of coal in stockings that we can lord over children for at least a month in order to extract the good, cooperative, ethical behavior we’d like them to exhibit year round. Does it matter that we — parents, mentors, and  role models — lie and use the cheats of emotional blackmail and bribes — to achieve that goal?  Isn’t it the height of hypocrisy to lie to our children for several years while trying to teach them the values of truth, integrity, and trust?

Our go-to rationalizations for telling these lies — but it’s fun, and everyone else is doing it — are ones that we would generally not find acceptable from our own kids, let alone any adult in our lives. Yet, year after year, for as long as we can get away with it, we perpetuate these holiday myths as if not doing so would somehow be cruel: As if our children would somehow be damaged by not wholeheartedly believing in this massive holiday delusion; or that we, as parents, wouldn’t be fulfilling our obligation to share the “magic” of the season with our smallest, most impressionable charges.

Putting aside the fact that some of that “magic” is actually meant to make things temporarily easier for us (clean your room, Santa’s watching), how is it that we’ve come to believe that steadily lying to children for five, six, or seven years is not only a noble tradition, but a nearly sacred one?

As with nearly everything else in the social human schema, I believe there are several layers that go into perpetuating the Santa lie. Some may have selective and fond memories of their own childhood excitement that overshadow the bribes, doubts, and inevitable disappointment. For others, there may be the belief that as parents they are owed a bang for their Christmas bucks — by way of super-cute, joyously animated, or better-behaved children. It’s likely, too, that many parents just go along with what they see as a harmless holiday tradition, and have never seriously considered an alternative.

There is an alternative, though. And it’s one that’s not stodgy or without its own magic. It’s joyous and imagination-spurring, but most importantly, it’s not based on a lie. Rather than promoting a separate experience of liar/believer, that calls for secrets to be kept and delusions to be maintained, the alternative can be a shared experience that’s fun and truly bonding.

I suggest that letting children in on the secret of Santa Claus as a fictional character won’t rob them of any of their holiday enjoyment. After all, they know that The Little Mermaid and Robin Hood aren’t real, but they enjoy the stories anyway, right down to pretending their own versions of the characters. The magic that comes from fairytales like Cinderella and Peter Pan isn’t dispelled even a tiny bit by the knowledge that they are make-believe. By nature,  children can (and do) love fantasies — they don’t have to be cajoled by adults into believing they are real in order to experience wide-eyed wonder or laugh out loud happiness. An understanding of what’s real versus what’s make-believe does not diminish a child’s sense of joy, imagination, or play.

I believe that being honest with children — while still telling North Pole stories and even playing along with certain Christmas traditions, like leaving milk and cookies out for Santa — makes the magic of the holidays more special, not less so. Instead of a secret that is being kept, it’s an imagination that’s shared . . . a bond that’s built by mutual fun and cooperative play. Instead of lying to our children in their youngest and most tender years in the name of tradition, I’d suggest that letting them in on the truth promotes the values most parents would like followed year-round. The elves can still watch, the nice and naughty lists can still be made, and reindeer can still come down the chimney . . . but in a way that respects the power of both imagination and truth.

I wish more parents would reconsider discontinuing the tradition of lying, and that fewer would so vigorously defend the delusions they insist on making their children believe. If children don’t need these types of lies in order to feel joyful (and I really believe they don’t), there’s got to be something in it for the parents. Is it being temporarily let off the hook for the do-it-or-else aspect of parenting? Is it the extraction of better behavior? Is it that they consider the truth dull, perhaps even cruel, and less merry-making than the lies? Or has lying to children simply become a matter of such tradition that it’s no longer even questioned? Whatever it is, can we at least ask — Is it building trust? What is its value? What is it teaching?

And for the record, no, I’m not Grinch-like at all. I just believe that imagination and truth happily, naturally co-exist in children — and make better lifetime partners for all growing beings — than an imagination fueled by lies.

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