The following is an opinion piece written by Dr. Julie Kim in partnership with The OpEd Project, whose mission is to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world.
Every year, the Christmas marketing starts — sometimes even before Thanksgiving. Men dressed as Santa Claus appear. Parents force scared children to sit on Santa’s lap; Santa hugs them and tells them to be good. In my opinion, this is creepy and wrong. We try so hard to teach children the value of truth and honesty; why do we think it’s OK to lie to them about Santa Claus?
Some argue that the myth of Santa helps children develop imagination — and from there, they learn to distinguish imagination from reality. However, convoluting fact and fiction in this way can be dangerous.
The reality is that Santa is a stranger. If I stumbled upon a strange man who was telling my child to “be good” while they sat on his lap (or if I found a strange man trying to enter my house via the chimney, or if I discovered that a strange man left candy for my child to eat), I might just try to kill that stranger. Sure, you could propose that the “existence” of Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny have been normalized by society and don’t fall into the “stranger danger” category. But even “stranger danger” is a fallacy.
Usually, an abused child knows their assailant — whether the abuser is a neighbor, babysitter, family member, teacher, coach, priest, celebrity, politician… the list goes on. Sometimes, a child’s silence is coerced by the predator, who threatens further harm if they should speak up. And sometimes, a child cannot fully recognize their mistreatment; they may even believe they are at fault. Thus, they remain silent. Far too often, we learn a child didn’t think they’d be believed even if they had spoken out.
The idea that on occasion it is acceptable to tell half-truths, gloss over the truth, fail to correct a lie, lie outright or even ask others to cease their questioning has ruined many adults’ lives. And these same behaviors can be even more damaging to a child. How can a young child be expected to protect herself from being exploited on a man’s lap or to sound the alarm if a stranger tries to enter her home or to know not to eat candies from strangers when we expect children to go along with all of the above in the name of Christmas?
What should you do if you have already perpetuated the “fake news” of Santa’s impending arrival? First of all, don’t panic. It is unlikely your child — or your relationship with your child — has been irreparably harmed by your mistruth.
Instead, recognize that children are smart. Let them help you out of the mess. Kids will wonder how Santa manages to ring a bell on a street corner while simultaneously greeting kids inside the mall. They’ll worry that Santa won’t deliver their gifts because your home doesn’t have a chimney. They will remember Santa used the same wrapping paper they found under your bed. My daughter saved me from my guilt when she was 4 years old. She looked at the label on her toy and said, “Made in China?! I thought this came from Santa!”
Once kids question, tell the truth immediately. Praise them for seeking out the truth. Make it a lesson about make-believe, the schism between entertainment and reality and the value of knowing the difference. In keeping with the holiday spirit, discuss generosity and altruism. Don’t worry too much about what they tell others about Santa. Your child most likely heard the truth from someone else, which led them to question the “alternate fact” you — and most of society — tried to establish.
If I could do it over, I would just passively let my children absorb the myth of Santa from TV, movies and their peers — and do with it what kids will. Children are curious sponges, and they will eventually ask about Santa — just as they eventually ask how babies get into a pregnant stomach and how they come out.
I’m not trying to be a Grinch or a Scrooge here. I don’t want to chastise parents for lying about Santa. If someone else’s child asks me whether Santa is real or not, I deflect by asking them what they think; then, I’ll suggest they discuss the matter with their parents.
I only ask that today’s parents consider their participation in our new frightening world of “alternative facts,” “fake news” and “post-truth.” In 2016, “post-truth” was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year. It’s defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Like all “alternative facts,” the existence of Santa is a post-truth “truth” that is also known as a lie.
We must acknowledge that the world has changed since the invention of Santa Claus. We know the risks of navigating childhood have become more complex — and can have devastating consequences. Identifying the facts has become more difficult now for people of all ages. And now more than ever, we need to empower children to recognize the truth so they can advocate for themselves. We must change with the world and in doing so, put Santa back where he belongs: a solidly fictional character contained in a story.