Let’s Cease the Santa Charade

By: David Kyle Johnson

The notion that we should lie to our children about Santa Claus enjoys a kind of sacred protection that modern religious beliefs can only dream of in the Western world. Don’t believe me? This very year, a mother in California was threatened with a lawsuit because her son spilled the beans about Santa at school. [1] The parents of the other children, who had their Christmas “spoiled,” even demanded the mother pay for a “fully interactive ‘Santa experience’” (i.e., for a mall Santa to appear at an event for the affected kids to make them believe again.) Can you imagine this happening if the son of an atheist mother told his friends Jesus wasn’t real? Sure, the other parents wouldn’t be happy—but would anyone threaten to make such a mother pay a minister to try to convince the affected children Jesus actually was real (or, better yet, for someone to dress up and appear as Jesus to the children to reignite their belief)?

Or take the 2010 American Atheists billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel that depicted a nativity scene and read “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.” [2] Sure, people were annoyed and the Catholic League erected billboards in response. [3] But no one questioned the American Atheists’ legal or moral right to do so. But try erecting a billboard depicting Santa which reads “Parents, don’t lie to your kids.” Would anyone even sell you the space? Would laws not immediately be passed to take it down? Would you not be forced to publicly apologize? If found out, might you even lose your job? Quite likely! After all, in 2008, a primary school teacher was fired for telling her students that Santa Claus didn’t exist [4] and in 2011, a local Fox News anchor had to apologize on air for saying there was no Santa. [5]

Among most who celebrate Christmas, the agreement that we should fool our children into believing that Santa literally exists – and keep them believing for as long as we can – is unspoken but unassailable. But, just as I do in Chapter 6 of my new book The Myths that Stole Christmas, I would like to argue that it should be abandoned. [6] Not only is it immoral, and simply bad parenting, but it does not have the benefits that defenders of it proclaim and is actually detrimental to something that we all (especially philosophers) should hold dear: our children’s critical thinking skills.

The Santa Lie: Immoral, Unimaginative, Bad Parenting

The case that it is immoral is straightforward: it’s an unjustifiable lie. Sure, lying is justified when it is the only way to accomplish some noble goal. (For example, lying to your child about the current state of your family’s finances might be justified in order to not burden them with worry.) However, not only is no consequence of the Santa-lie unique to it (i.e., there are other ways to produce wonder and amazement), but none of the consequences are noble enough to warrant the grand deception.

It’s also easy to see that it is bad parenting. First, learning that your parents have been lying to you for years has a tendency to create trust issues. Second, it can damage a child’s moral compass. “Why does Santa always give the spoiled rich kid so many presents?” More importantly, however, it’s a crutch parents should avoid. Even defenders of the Santa-lie, like Melinda Wenner Moyer, agree that “parents use Santa inappropriately…when they use him primarily as a disciplinary threat.” [7] (The same goes for “The Elf on the Shelf”. [8]) Yet that is Santa’s main role for most parents. “Stop misbehaving or Santa won’t bring you any presents.” Not only should children behave well ultimately because they simply recognize it as the right thing to do, but encouraging such behavior should take the form of rewarding exceptional behavior and punishing the bad. The Santa-lie rewards a lack of misbehavior. I don’t give my students bonus points for not cheating; children shouldn’t get bonus points for not misbehaving.

Moyer defends the Santa-lie because, she suggests, it promotes imaginative play, which is beneficial for children’s psychological development. However, aside from the fact that there are other ways to encourage imagination (making non-deceptive ways preferable), the Santa lie doesn’t actually promote imagination at all. As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry puts it, “You’re not asking kids to actually imagine anything, you’re feeding them beliefs.” [9] Does the Christian imagine that Jesus rose from the dead? Does the Muslim imagine that Mohammed rode to heaven on a horse named Barack? No, they believe. To imagine that something is true, one has to know it’s not but pretend it is anyway. To again quote Gobry, “If believing in Santa was an exercise in imagination, every kid would believe in a different Santa.” So the Santa lie actually stifles a child’s imagination, rather than promoting it.

The Santa Lie Promotes Credulity

But worst of all, the ways in which we promote literal belief in Santa is, I fear, stifling children’s intellect and making them credulous. Think about how we keep them believing. Some parents concoct faulty evidence but tell children to find it convincing. (One student of mine, when he was young, carried around a Polaroid of his dad in a Santa suit as “Santa proof” for an entire year.) Other parents will show their children the mocumentary Search for Santa and let its “sciencey sounding language” and equation of gut feeling and personal experience with scientific evidence do its work.[10] Others will employ ridiculous explanations that defy all logic and scientific fact.[11] Others, when lacking any other explanation, will simply appeal to magic. Still others will suggest (along with Francis Church) [12] that the mere fact that you can’t prove Santa doesn’t exist entails that he does. And worst of all, parents will suggest that, despite all their doubts, children should just believe anyway because “it’s fun.”

These are the same mistakes in critical reasoning that I have to correct in my students semester after semester. When they arrive in my class, many students find the faulty evidence for UFOs – including faked pictures and videos–to be convincing. Others think there were ancient aliens because of a “scientific documentary” that they saw on The History Channel. They will trust their gut and personal experience over the scientific evidence to believe in ghosts. Still others will concoct excuses that defy logic and science to continue to believe in creationism. They will believe in illuminati conspiracy theories because you can’t prove them false, and they will believe in Bigfoot because it’s fun. I’ve even had students (college students!) who believe that magicians actually, literally, have magic powers.

The Dangers of Credulity

Of course, perhaps you think such beliefs are harmless, but the same fallacies and faulty reasoning lie behind many beliefs that people accept that are anything but harmless.

Much like parents fool kids about Santa with fake evidence, and my students are often fooled by a fake video of UFOs, people have been taken in by the fake videos that “exposed” ACORN [13] and Planned Parenthood [14] and consequently called for the defunding or elimination of these organizations. (In the case of ACORN, these efforts were successful.) [15]

Just like children watching Search for Santa, and my students watching Ancient Aliens on The History Channel, adults have been duped by sciencey sounding language on Dr. Oz [16] into believing in alternative medicine—which not only doesn’t work, [17] but is so harmful [18] that it (according to John W. Minor) “kills more people [each year] than those who die from all crimes of violence put together.”

Much like the “scientists” on Search for Santa, and my students who confuse their gut instinct and personal experience for real evidence for ghosts, people have confused Jenny McCarthy’s personal experience and “mommy instinct” (that a vaccine caused her son’s autism) with scientific evidence. [19] Consequently, they have stopped vaccinating their kids and caused epidemics of preventable diseases. [20]

Much like parents making excuses for Santa, and my students who use illogical and unscientific excuses to continue to believe in creationism, people will do the same to defend many notions that hold back social progress—like the idea that homosexuality is a choice, [21] that supply side economics [22] (a.k.a. cutting taxes on “job creators” or trickle-down economics) is good for the economy, [23] and that voter fraud is a problem. [24]

Much like Francis Church, and my students who believe in the illuminati, people will believe things simply because they can’t be disproven—like conspiracies about secret communists, Benghazi, and Obama wanting to “take all our guns.” What’s the harm? The McCarthy hearings discredited dozens of upstanding politicians in the 1950s and cost hundreds of federal employees their jobs [25]; the Benghazi fiasco cost taxpayers millions and could likely influence the next election [26]; and conspiracy theories about Obama wanting to disarm the entire country have made meaningful gun regulation politically impossible [27] and further mass shootings inevitable. [28]

And much like kids and my students who believe in something (e.g., Santa, Bigfoot) because it’s fun, adults will refuse to believe that climate change is real because it’s too depressing. In fact, as you look at the arguments of those who deny climate change, you’ll find almost every mistake in reasoning I just mentioned: finding fake evidence convincing, [29] being duped by sciencey sounding arguments, [30] excusing away scientific evidence, [31] and even invoking conspiracy theories. [32] Climate change denial may very well be the critical thinking mistake that dooms the human race—perhaps it already has. [33]

Of course, you don’t have to be exposed to the Santa lie to have poor critical thinking skills. As I teach my students, humans are not natural critical thinkers; it’s a skill that we must learn and develop. [34] But we need all the help we can get! Yet it seems few things could retard the development of such skills in children more than our efforts to keep them believing the Santa lie.

Responding to Objections

In my book, The Myths that Stole Christmas, I respond to twelve different objections that have been levied at me since I starting publicly criticizing the Santa lie back in 2009. [35] “It’s every child’s right,” “I believed and I turned out fine,” and even “But Santa Claus IS real!” And, of course, I also mount a full critique of Francis Church’s “Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.” But one objection deserves a more detailed response here.

In objection to my view, many have demanded that I am not exercising my own critical thinking skills. “Where’s your scientific evidence that Santa-belief harms critical thinking?” But the obvious response is simple. “Where is yours that it doesn’t?” That may sound like an appeal to ignorance, but it all comes down to where the burden of proof lies; in the absence of any scientific evidence, what should be the default position?

Well, let’s think about it. Do I need a scientific study to justifiably believe that demonstrating and encouraging poor linguistic skills to my son Johney can hinder his linguistic development? Of course not. In the same way, I don’t need a scientific study to justifiably believe that modeling and encouraging poor critical thinking skills can hinder his rational development. Of course, if repeated well-controlled studies showed otherwise, I’d change my view. But much like research on the relationship between guns, gun laws, and gun violence, no research has ever been done on the effect of the Santa lie on our children. [36] Like guns, Santa is just too much of a sacred cow; we don’t want to know what effect he is having.

Let’s Compromise

I know it’s a tall order. I know that not teaching your kids to believe in Santa can threaten to ostracize both you and them from family and friends. I know it’s a tradition that is so beloved that no argument I give, no matter how clearly valid and sound, could persuade most people to abandon it. So how about a compromise? Don’t give it up entirely. Play the Santa game; label gifts from Santa and eat the milk and cookies. Pretend that Santa is real. But when your child is old enough to know the difference between fact and fiction, and asks you for the truth…don’t lie. Don’t make excuses. Don’t appeal to magical explanations or say they should believe because it’s fun. Just tell them the truth. “No Virginia, we’re just pretending Santa is real. It’s a fun game.”

Better yet, instead of just telling them, get them to figure it out. But don’t let them just settle on the wrong answer because they want to believe. Lead them through a critical thinking exercise that generates the right conclusion. “Could Santa really visit every house in one night?” “Does wanting it to be true that Santa exists make it true? “What’s the best explanation for where your presents come from?” Unlike encouraging literal Santa belief, playing the critical thinking game could have long-term benefits.

David Kyle Johnson is an associate professor of philosophy at King’s College, a professor for The Great Courses, and the author of the new book The Myths That Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions That Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back).

Endnotes:

1. Packham, Amy. “Mum ‘Threatened With Lawsuit’ After Son Tells School Friends Father Christmas Isn’t Real.” The Huffington Post UK. N.p., 21 Sept. 2015. Web. <http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/09/21/mum-threatening-letter-kid-tells-santa-not-real-reddit_n_8169932.html>  .

2. Slotnik, Daniel E. “For the Holidays, an Atheism Billboard.” City Room For the Holidays an Atheism Billboard Comments. The New York Times, 29 Nov. 2010. Web. <http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/29/for-the-holidays-an-atheism-billboard/?_r=1>.

3. Topousis, Tom. “Catholic League Counters Atheist Billboard.” The New York Post, 30 November 2010. Web.<http://nypost.com/2010/11/30/catholic-league-counters-atheist-billboard/>.

4. “Primary School Teacher Who Told Children: ‘Santa Does Not Exist’ Is Fired.” Daily Mail, 11 December 2008.
Web. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1093535/Primary-school-teacher-told-children-Santa-does-exist-fired.html>.

5. Sudo, Chuck. “Fox News Chicago’s Robin Robinson Apologizes for Saying There Is No Santa On Air.” Chicagoist, 2 December 2011. Web. <http://chicagoist.com/2011/12/02/fox_news_chicagos_robin_robinson_ap.php>.

6. Johnson, David Kyle. The Myths That Stole Christmas: Seven Misconceptions That Hijacked the Holiday (and How We Can Take It Back). Humanist Press, 2015. Web. <http://www.humanistpress.com/david-kyle-johnson.html>.

7. Moyer, Melinda Wenner. “The Santa Lie: Is the Big Christmas Con Hurting Our Kids?” Slate Magazine, 6 December. 2012. Web. <http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2012/12/the_santa_lie_is_the_big_christmas_con_hurting_our_kids.html/>.

8. “The Elf on the Shelf.” The Elf on the Shelf. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.elfontheshelf.com/>.

9. Gobry, Pascal-Emmanuel. “Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Lie To Your Kids About Santa.” Business Insider, Inc., 25 December 2010. Web. <http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-why-you-shouldnt-lie-to-your-kids-about-santa-2010-12>.

10. Search for Santa. Dir. Douglas Cheney. CreateSpace, 2005. DVD.

11. Mone, Gregory. The Truth about Santa: Wormholes, Robots, and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. Print.

12. “‘Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus’: Read the Iconic 1897 Editorial That Continues to Bring Christmas Joy.” NY Daily News, 24 December 2014. Web. <http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/yes-virginia-article-1.1556978>.

13. Boehlert, Eric. “Breitbart Confirms He Was Duped by O’Keefe and the ACORN Pimp Hoax.” Media Matters for America, 2 March. 2010. Web. <http://mediamatters.org/research/2010/03/02/breitbart-confirms-he-was-duped-by-okeefe-and-t/161084>.

14. Levitan, Dave. “Unspinning the Planned Parenthood Video.” FactCheck.org, 21 July 2015. Web. <http://www.factcheck.org/2015/07/unspinning-the-planned-parenthood-video/>.

15. Rowan, Harriet. “James O’Keefe Pays $100K Settlement after Deceiving Public about ACORN (and ALEC Helped Take Down ACORN).” PR Watch, 14 March. 2013. Web. <http://www.prwatch.org/news/2013/03/12019/james-o%E2%80%99keefe-pays-100k-settlement-after-deceiving-public-about-acorn-alec%E2%80%99s-help>.

16. Schlanger, Zoe. “More Than Half of Medical Advice on ‘Dr. Oz’ Lacks Proof or Contradicts Best Available Science: Study.” Newsweek, 19 December 2014. Web. <http://www.newsweek.com/researchers-cant-find-proof-two-thirds-medical-advice-dr-oz-293551>.

17. Novella, Steven. “We Should Abandon the Concept of “Alternative Medicine”.” Science-Based Medicine, 12 August 2015. Web. <https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/tag/complementary-and-alternative-medicine/>.

18. “What’s The Harm?” What’s The Harm? N.p., n.d. Web. <http://whatstheharm.net/>.

19. “Autism/MMR Scare Timeline.” The Skeptics Dictionary. N.p., 2015. Web.<http://skepdic.com/autismtimeline.html>

20. Sifferlin, Alexandra. “4 Diseases Making a Comeback Thanks to Anti-Vaxxers.” Time, 17 March 2014. Web.<http://time.com/27308/4-diseases-making-a-comeback-thanks-to-anti-vaxxers/>

21. Mountjoy, Paul. “Modern Science Says Homosexuality Is Not a Choice.” The Washington Times, 31 Dec. 2014. Web <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/dec/31/modern-science-says-homosexuality-not-choice/?page=all>

22. Amadeo, Kimberly. “Supply-side Economics: What Is It and Does It Work?” About.com, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. <http://useconomy.about.com/od/fiscalpolicy/p/supply_side.htm>.

23. Petroff, Alanna. “The “trickle down Theory” Is Dead Wrong.” CNNMoney, 15 June 2015. Web. <http://money.cnn.com/2015/06/15/news/economy/trickle-down-theory-wrong-imf/>.

24. Bump, Philip. “The Disconnect between Voter ID Laws and Voter Fraud.” The Washington Post, 13 October 2014. Web. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/13/the-disconnect-between-voter-id-laws-and-voter-fraud/>.

25. “Army-McCarthy Hearings.” United States History. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1769.html>.

26. Singer, Paul. “House Benghazi Panel May Cost $3 Million This Year.” USA Today, 07 July 2014. Web.<http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/07/07/benghazi-committee-33-million-republicans/12301935/>.

27. Volz, Dustin. “2013: The Year We Learned Gun Reform Is Impossible.” National Journal, 10 December 2013. Web. <http://www.nationaljournal.com/s/64847/2013-year-we-learned-gun-reform-is-impossible>.

28. Oremus, Will. “After a 1996 Mass Shooting, Australia Enacted Strict Gun Laws. It Hasn’t Had a Similar Massacre Since.” Slate Magazine, 1 Oct. 2015. Web. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2012/12/16/gun_control_after_connecticut_shooting_could_australia_s_laws_provide_a.html>.

29. Many pieces of such fake evidence are mentioned here: Rice, Doyle. “Study Debunks ‘global Cooling’ Concern of ’70s.” USA Today, 22 February 2008. Web. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/environment/2008-02-20-global-cooling_N.htm>.

30. One such argument is mentioned here: Denvil, Alasdair. “Global Warming and the Reasons We Do (or Don’t) Believe Science.” The Blaze, 21 April 2015. Web. . For more, see: Nuccitelli, Dana. “The Top Ten Global Warming ‘skeptic’ Arguments Answered.” The Guardian, 6 May 2014. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2014/may/06/top-ten-global-warming-skeptic-arguments-debunked>.

31. Gleick, Peter. “’Global Warming Has Stopped’? How To Fool People Using ‘Cheery Picked’ Climate Data.” Forbes, 5 February 2012. Web. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/petergleick/2012/02/05/global-warming-has-stopped-how-to-fool-people-using-cherry-picked-climate-data>.

32. Jogalekar, Ashutosh. “Climate Change Denial, Laissez-faire Economics and Conspiracy Theories: A Productive Pairing?” Scientific American, 6 May 2013. Web. . See Also, “What Do the ‘Climategate’ Hacked CRU Emails Tell Us?” SkepticalScience, 14 July 2015. Web. <http://www.skepticalscience.com/Climategate-CRU-emails-hacked.htm>.

33. Pressman, Jonathan W. “We Are Dead: Climate Change and Guy McPherson.” People’s World, 18 April 2014. Web. <http://peoplesworld.org/we-are-dead-climate-change-and-guy-mcpherson/>.

34. Schick, Theodore, and Lewis Vaughn. How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2013. Print.

35. Johnson, David Kyle. “Sorry, Virginia …” The Baltimore Sun, 13 December 2009. Web.<http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2009-12-13/news/bal-op.santaclaus13dec13_1_santa-claus-parent-kids>.

36. Frankel, Todd C. “Why the CDC Still Isn’t Researching Gun Violence, despite the Ban Being Lifted Two Years Ago.”
The Washington Post, 14 January 2015. Web. .

Categories: Essay

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38 Comments »

  1. Your “compromise” is exactly what already happens with the vast number of families. Kids figure it out. It doesn’t scar them. It teaches them a lesson about figuring things out and about the differences between childhood and adulthood. All of your comparisons to vaccines and UFOs strike me as false analogies precisely because part of the Santa story is the kids figuring it out for themselves rather than being told. They are different kinds of falsehood altogether.

    As for the burden of proof, the vast majority of recent Westerners has believed and turned out fine. Why, exactly, is the burden of proof on them instead of the people making the more extraordinary claim?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. There are a lot lies parents tell their children. Like it’s a good idea to vote for Republicans. Or that a social-democratic welfare government is evil. Or the parents watch FOX News approvingly and let their children watch too. “Santa” is the among least of lies parents tell their children.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Forget it, no amount of critical thinking is ever going to win against the Coca Cola business model.

    Besides, glotzerg already said it — the compromise you are advocating is already happening for the vast majority of children. I don’t know of any single adult whose critical thinking skills are now impaired because he believed in a Santa as a kid. Your argument is a strawman.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually tackle the “I know people who believed in Santa, and they’re critical thinking skills are just fine” reply in the book. I’m not saying it’s a guarantee–I’m saying it’s a risk. And given how important critical thinking is, it’s not a risk worth taking. Besides, I know kids who believed and whose critical thinking skills are deplorable. Is the lie wholly responsible? Probably not. But how does “telling your kids to just believe in something because it’s fun encourages them to ignore the need for evidence” even need an argument?

    And I don’t think my suggested compromise is nearly as common as you think it is. (If it was, I wouldn’t get near as much hate mail as I do.) Most parents try to squeeze as many years of Santa belief out of their kids as they can, and to do so they encourage them to embrace credulous thinking. Will it scar them for life–maybe not. But it’s a big step in the wrong direction.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Would be useful on a philosophy forum to have at least a slightly more rigorous notion of what the word ‘lie’ means than is exhibited here, no? I never once considered that my parents or relatives or Macy’s employees or TV movies or teachers or townspeople and neighbors profusely covering the town with santa/reindeer decorations every December were ever guilty of lying. Seems silly to me. In fact, in matters of social interaction, my instincts would normally be to have much more caution and circumspection in choosing to deal with people who would think this way, than with the harmless good-natured north pole conspirators. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. And I can’t be committing the Strawman fallacy unless I am restating someone else’s argument in a weaker way to make it easier to attack.But I am even recasting anyone’s argument. So, even if parents already embrace the compromise I suggest (which most don’t), I still wouldn’t be strawmaning. I would be complaining about something that doesn’t happen–but that is not strawmaning.

    But, once again, it’s definitely happening. Many, if not most, parents try to make their kids believe for as long as they can, and to do so they encourage them to be credulous.

    Like

  7. I do hate hearing that term ‘critical thinking’ thrown about as if it were something like a moral absolute. It’s just the shibboleth of the skeptic, new atheist, evidence-based hoards. Critical thinking needs most to be applied to the concept of critical thinking. Critical thinking is the Santa Claus of atheism.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The first thought that came to mind: “Funspoil.”

    The second thought that came to mind: “Hyperbolic nonsense.”

    The third thought that came to mind: “Who cares?”

    The fourth thought that came to mind: “Yuck.”

    Liked by 4 people

  9. I would not have replied so strongly, had the author not been so accusatory. To accuse literally millions of people whom one does not know of “bad parenting” and of harming their children is just obnoxious, especially given how insignificant the issue is overall. I mean, Santa Claus? Really?

    Like

  10. So anybody that disagrees with the editor can expect to be ridiculed and insulted in the worst way possible. Instead of you know , having a civil discussion with them.

    Is that how you settle disagrements here? by calling people names instead of judging the arguments in their own merit. I don’t know why anybody would want to publish their essays here, given the childish and unprofessional behaviour of the people running this site.

    Like

  11. franciscordz:

    Sorry you feel that way.

    Insulted in the worst way possible? Really? “Funspoil” is the worst insult possible? “Hyperbolic nonsense” is the worst insult possible?

    How about claiming that parents who celebrate Christmas with their kids — with Santa Claus and all the trimmings — are “bad parents”? What would you call that?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. OK, They may be not the worst, but a “Symposium” that is supposed to be about having thoughtful discussions and exchange of ideas, these childish insults do not belong, especially from the people running the place. It gives the impression that the editors are a bunch of jerks who don’t want to talk with you, but only want to publicly mock and humiliate the people that the disagree with.

    I don’t think the author intended to say that celebrating Christmas is wrong, he even proposed a solution that would enable parents to keep celebrating it, without the parts that he finds negative. I guess being charitable is something that philosophers don’t practice these days, also there are better and worse ways to bring up a child, people that perpetuate the belief that wishful thinking is good seem to be worst parents than those who don’t. That does not make those parents “bad parents” in general, but they could still improve ,you know?

    I would say that he may have been wrong I calling them bad parents, but even then, what if he is right and most people are bad parents? It would make no sense to dismiss him because most people don’t like what they hear, after all, not so long ago corporal punishment was OK by most parents, and any one that disagreed was given the same response you just gave.

    Like

  13. About critical thinking, what happens if we apply critical thinking to basically any fairy tale told to the children, say the story about the three little pigs and the big bad wolf? Here are the arguments of a critical thinker:
    1. nobody has ever observed a pig make a house, especially out of wood or bricks
    2. pigs lack the anatomical and psychological tools necessary to perform complex operations like building houses out of bricks
    3. no wolf has enough lung capacity or muscle strength to tear down a house simply by blowing

    Since 1. 2. and 3. make the story factually false, and since we should not lie to our children, we should not tell them the story at all, right? And the moral of that story is an unimportant colateral, it can be taught to children by some means other than storytelling, right?

    Wrong.

    Critical thinking often conflicts with dreaming and imagination. A child should develop and enjoy imagination and dreaming as much as possible, because it will have the whole adulthood for boring and dull critical thinking afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Franiciscordz,

    “They may be not the worst, but a “Symposium” that is supposed to be about having thoughtful discussions and exchange of ideas, these childish insults do not belong, especially from the people running the place. ”

    Agreed, we should be trying to foster more civil dialogue. Glad you reminded us of this.

    “It gives the impression that the editors are a bunch of jerks who don’t want to talk with you, but only want to publicly mock and humiliate the people that the disagree with.”

    Well let’s not generalize here, since I am also an editor…

    “I don’t think the author intended to say that celebrating Christmas is wrong, he even proposed a solution that would enable parents to keep celebrating it, without the parts that he finds negative.”

    Agreed.

    “I guess being charitable is something that philosophers don’t practice these days.”

    Well, in the interest of being charitable to Dan-K, I would say his response is similar to one you would have if you saw that someone were trying to advocate that rape is morally permissible. That thesis is off the table. It is obviously morally impermissible. To argue otherwise only deserves dismissal. I take it Dan-K saw this issue/thesis warranting the same response. You may disagree, but this is at least a charitable interpretation of Dan-K’s comments.

    “there are better and worse ways to bring up a child, people that perpetuate the belief that wishful thinking is good seem to be worst parents than those who don’t. That does not make those parents “bad parents” in general, but they could still improve ,you know?”

    Agreed, but I think we could still weaken Dan-K’s concern and not lose to triviality. He could say, “is the author really arguing that having your children believe in santa clause is bad, something needing to be improved upon/ fixed? There are all sorts of other values to this activity that the author might be leaving out in his normative calculations.” (we may actually see an response essay arguing something like this very soon)

    As to the actual essay itself,

    Thanks for writing is Kyle (David Kyle Johnson), it was clearly written.

    I take it, from glossing over the comments, that many commentators seem to be denying some of the proposed empirical facts that you have put forth such as how many parent actually persistently try to get their children to maintain their belief in Santa. Perhaps stressing the empirical evidence more in the comments section here would be helpful.

    I don’t want to say much more, because a response essay from one of our contributors will be published soon which may contain many of the thoughts I have about your essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. When I was about 5, we went to visit my mother’s parents for Easter. The night before, I discovered that the Easter Bunny was my Grandmother, and, in some good humor, I told her so.

    One would think a reasonable adult would see this as a teachable moment. But not all adults are reasonable.

    I was beaten black and blue. I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny, I stopped believing in Easter, I stopped believing in my Grandmother, and in my mother who supported her. From then on – until I actually practiced (and not just studied) Buddhism – it was me against the world; and more and more similar experiences with my mentally warped family re-enforced this.

    This isn’t the typical experience, I know; yet similar experiences occur more frequently than we would like to suppose.

    I hate Christmas. They very idea of it, triggering so many painful memories, offends my sense of well-being. I rise above it through practicing detachment from such memories and focusing on the present day. But while I do not interfere with whatever happiness others enjoy at Christmas – which I suggest is much less than we pretend there is – I treat the whole season like a bad horror movie one has to sit through to get to the second feature.

    “Funspoil”? Frankly, a part of me wishes I could. The unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) promises of the season are unnecessarily vain and artificial – and so inevitably disappointing.

    But much of our aspirations are, so feel free to box this comment and mark “Do not open until next year.”

    https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2014/12/24/the-terrors-of-christmas/

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Lead them through a critical thinking exercise that generates the right conclusion. “Could Santa really visit every house in one night?”

    Typical Asantaist propaganda

    The solution is simple. Santa visits every child who has been good for an entire year. Any parents among you might consider how often a child manages to be good for even an entire day. Yes, exactly.

    So the question is not “could Santa visit all those houses in one night?” it is “What does Santa do with the rest of the evening? ”

    I am the William Lane Craig of Santa.

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  17. Santa Claus can be a nice instructive tongue-in-cheek tool to introduce children to science.

    Namely, how do people (including the author of the article above) really reach the conclusion that Santa doesn’t exist? It is certainly not a logical consequence of strict critical thinking (pure logic does admit Santa), but it can rather be seen as a failure of classical Newtonian mechanics to describe Santa. However, all inconsistencies between Santa and basic physics can be resolved from the point of view of quantum mechanics. Back in 2004 I wrote an article about this for children interested in science,

    http://www.markovojinovic.com/professional/pdf/2004-SantaClaus.pdf

    with three aims:

    (1) to describe the basic principles of QM and differences from the classical physics,
    (2) to emphasise that science is about building models, and not about the “truth”,
    (3) to inspire imagination in schoolchildren, both about science and about a flying reindeer sleigh that Santa drives.

    Feel free to read it — the article is aimed at the children of elementary- and high-school level of knowledge, so it is not very technical and should be understandable to everyone. To wet your appetite, I’ll quote here just one sentence from the conclusion:

    “Therefore, if you want to receive a present from the Santa Claus in the upcoming Christmas eve, you must behave well, decorate your Christmas tree, and study quantum mechanics!”

    Best, 🙂
    Marko

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  18. EJWinner. Obviously your experience is serious and your thoughts heartfelt. But you couldn’t possibly think that this is generalizable to tens of millions of people, who harmlessly enjoy Santa Claus and the holiday, could you? You say they occur more frequently than we would like to suppose, but not to the order of magnitude, where it would be reasonable to describe tens of millions of people as engaged in “bad parenting”?

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  19. The author, I think, completely misunderstands the role of fantasy and myth in childhood. He would do well to read G.K. Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,” as would anyone else who hasn’t read it. Chesteron’s prose is beautiful and his account of the role that fairy tales play in our lives is spot-on. (Of course, Chesterton is also an orthodox Christian, so I won’t agree with *everything* he says in the essay.)

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  20. I’d like to second Pera’s comment as well as DanK’s concerning childhood and imagination. We all (I think) dislike the commercialization of the season, but to go after it in this way which impugns imagination in the interest of boring adult life is too much. With all due respect to the author and those like EJ with negative experiences due to unpleasant people, I have to agree with Alice, from Alice in Wonderland: “…it seemed dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.”

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  21. I’m sorry, I simply cannot take the author’s approach to this subject seriously. Nor does it bother me in the least when someone resorts to ridicule to undercut his arguments which are overblown and overgeneralized and can be misapplied to all sorts of holiday celebrations and social practices, not just to this particular one that seems to be a personal bete-noire of the author. In particular, the arguments of bad-parenting and violations of critical thinking seem to me to be particularly overstated given the topic, if only because they force the author to make debatable claims about what constitutes good-parenting and critical thinking.

    I have neither the patience, time, or expertise to counter his arguments with some faux-sociological or cultural ruminations, just as I don’t when someone insists on arguing that the Seinfield episode on Festivus is profane or morally reprehensible.

    The personal anecdotes, such as ej’s, are of course distressing. But it is reasonable to suppose that the problem was with his grandmother and not the Easter Bunny. I was raised Roman Catholic, though I no longer practice, and well remember the “Let’s Put Christ Back in Christmas” message that was ubiquitous in the 1950’s and 60’s. So far all I know it still is. It was meant to counter the perception that the holiday season had become “over-commercialized.” My mother seldom practiced her faith; my father was for all intents and purposes an atheist. But each year we made a big deal over decorating the “Christmas” tree and placing presents under it along with the obligatory manger scene. Perhaps, they were guilty of bad-parenting or failed to engage my critical thinking by failing to the broach the subject of whether the manger scene was in fact a hoax or merely Christian folklore. The worst participant in my own experience was my father–the atheist–who insisted that I spend an entire weekend each year helping him string colored lights all over the outside of the house and to populate the front lawn with a mechanized version of Santa, his sled, and those reindeer. He liked to watch the faces of the people in their cars as they passed slowly down the street at nighttime and snapped photos of the display.

    So, I supposed that on the basis of my personal experience I see no need to indulge another story of victimization or bad-parenting or the failure to exercise critical reasoning in this matter. The world is full of victims and bad actors. No need to create more on the basis of what is at best a rather tenuous argument regarding the harmfulness of some social customs and practices.

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  22. DanK,

    “But you couldn’t possibly think that this is generalizable to tens of millions of people, who harmlessly enjoy Santa Claus and the holiday, could you?”

    No, of course not. But experiences like mine should serve as reminder of the limits of the ‘cheer’ and ‘joy’ and ‘good will to all’ of some traditions we are expected to observe without complaint (otherwise we’re ‘spoiling the season’ for others).

    Johnson is presenting the reasonable case (agree with it or not), concerning overtones of the general theme. Experiences like mine raise questions concerning undertones that may not have much to do with reasonableness. Why was my Grandmother so threatened by discovery of the Bunny fraud? why do people with experiences like mine continue, year after painful year, to struggle to achieve a sense of belonging, of enjoyment, that can never be theirs?

    I have four close friends. Two never had children. Of these two, one never bothered with holidays unless he and his wife were invited to parties among people they really cared about. The other kept going to family get togethers for years – unhappily, complaining afterwards – until the migraine headaches these experiences caused finally reached health-risk proportions. He then let his family know, in no uncertain terms, that he and his wife would no longer attend such endurance tests and would only observe – privately – those holidays they felt comfortable with.

    Of the two friends who have children, one celebrates christmas in the accepted traditional way without much trouble. A practicing Catholic, however, he never bothered with the Santa story with his daughter, because he did not see it as necessary to what he believes to be the spiritual truth of the season.

    The other friend, also with a daughter, is a complete atheist who never bothered with the season, and so never taught his daughter anything about Santa, because, why bother? Both these daughters seem to be turning out ok and untraumatized, despite the lack of shared fiction-making at an early age.

    And that’s what the Santa story (and I would suggest much of Christmas) really amounts to – collective fiction-making. The Nativity may be a true myth, since many adults accept it, but the Santa story is just a story, since no one who inquires reasonably into it can accept it. Like all stories, it serves its social purpose for many (commercial purposes for quite a few), but frustrates, or simply bores, many others. The real question is why we make such a fuss over it, one way or another. What is the emotional or psychological investment here?

    I’ll leave that as a question for further inquiry.

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  23. The Santa myth has been so commodified, commercialized, banalized, and vulgarized that maybe we should start over when we stimulate our children’s imagination.

    I’m Jewish and I never told my children about Santa nor did I give them a formal Jewish education, by the way. However, based on their stuffed animals, I invented a series of imaginary characters, each with a separate personality, whom I and my son Pablo talked to and talked about. I doubt that he thought that they were “real”: he just seemed to find it to be fun to share an imaginary world with his father. My older son, born as the result of another relationship, did not accept my attempts to create an imaginary common world with him, but that has more to do with the influence of his mother than with anything else.

    I doubt that believing in Santa or any other myths affect children’s critical reasoning skills. Pablo also loved the Greek mythology, which provides lots of fascinating stories for young and old, without all the commercial associations which Santa has unfortunately accumulated over the years.

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  24. ej: “The real question is why we make such a fuss over it, one way or another. What is the emotional or psychological investment here?”

    Agreed. But isn’t this what the author is, in fact, doing? Making a fuss. I liked your account in your preceding comment. In fact, my wife and I are the childless couple you allude too. We haven’t “celebrated” this season’s holidays in decades. Many of our relatives and friends do, however, and we practically navigate through these matters and occasions as best we can. That is true of most, I imagine, and I think it likely that almost everyone has some “good” and “bad” anecdotes to report over the course of a lifetime. My question is slightly different from yours. I wonder what it is about such matters that lend them to a sort of emotional fetishizing that seems unhelpful and uncalled for.

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  25. Any theory which hypothesises that my parents, grandparents or great aunts were guilty of bad parenting is, as far as I am concerned, a non starter. Not only is it barking up the wrong tree, it is in entirely the wrong forest.

    Although reading some of the above I am feeling a little guilty about how perfect my childhood Christmases were.

    Also, I really wonder about what sort of a belief the belief in Santa Claus is. After all, as kids we always knew that Meccano sets were not made in the North Pole, the “Made in England” labels were a bit of a give away in that respect. We knew they were not built by Elves, they were built by people with machines in factories, we could even give a good account of the manufacturing process for die cast cars.

    And all the hand made gifts we received, we could always recognise the handicraft of our father, or our mother or our grandmother.

    So it seems to me that it was more of a suspension of disbelief than an actual belief, a going along with the story.

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  26. Much like the “scientists” on Search for Santa, and my students who confuse their gut instinct and personal experience for real evidence for ghosts, people have confused Jenny McCarthy’s personal experience and “mommy instinct” (that a vaccine caused her son’s autism) with scientific evidence. [19] Consequently, they have stopped vaccinating their kids and caused epidemics of preventable diseases. [20]

    Did we forget that a respected British medical journal published a peer reviewed paper claiming a link, which later turned out to be fraudulent, but they didn’t fully retract it for another 12 years, a mere 5 years ago?

    Or is it more convenient to blame it all on Jenny McCarthy than the incompetence of the scientific establishment?

    It seems what you should really be saying is that people have a peer reviewed paper in a prominent and respected medical journal with scientific evidence.

    What we have is the unfortunate coincidence that symptoms of autism very often become manifest at a time when MMR is administered. So you have, not just one “mommy” but many thousands of families who have children who were meeting and even exceeding the milestones and then, following a vaccination, suddenly going downhill, losing speech and even the ability to walk.

    It is very difficult not to strongly suspect a link and then you add to it the Lancet publishing that paper and leaving it out there for twelve years. It wasn’t even partially retracted for 6 years.

    Trying to say this disaster is a consequence of Jenny McCarthy strikes me as a prime example of bad critical thinking. Jenny McCarthy is, of course, part of the problem but she is not the reason for it.

    We won’t fix this mess unless we admit to all the facts, even if they are inconvenient to some narrative.

    And of course (I couldn’t help mentioning) it doesn’t help that a prominent anti-vaxxer gets a “Richard Dawkins Award”, approved by the world’s greatest thinker himself. Or that the same anti-vaxxer was put on the board of Project “Reason” by Sam Harris.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Hi DanK, while funny your first couple of posts were just emoting which is not exactly useful (beyond being funny). I mean what is an author supposed to do with that? So, it looks like it’s the naughty list for you 🙂

    The thing is I sympathize with the sort of problems you (and Thomas and others) had with the position Dave took in the essay. If there is one word that popped into my head it was: “overwrought”. But it’s not like that itself couldn’t be discussed, or points within the essay which could be of further interest (like what really counts as a lie).

    I suppose at this point I can add Hi Dave as well,
    I thought that the examples at the front of the essay were disturbing, as are accounts like Ejwinner’s. Clearly there are people who take Santa too seriously. As Thomas already said and I totally agree this can happen with any holiday so I’m not certain why Xmas has been targeted in specific, but we can take that as a proxy.

    I think the underlying problem in such cases (which are thankfully few) is parents wanting their own fun regardless what it means for other people, including their own children. Like spoiled brats if someone spoils the fun they wanted to have, they lash out and punish others including their own kids. It is ridiculous and a real concern if such things ever make it to courts (for people telling the truth?) or leads to physical/psychological injury to kids.

    I also thought the ideas within the “compromise” were interesting. I would add something perhaps just as useful and arguably more fun than time management problems… pick a different country and celebrate (which means learning about) their form of winter holidays, most especially the very different takes on St Nick around the world. It would take all of two Xmases for a kid to figure out it’s about fun and imagination and not a singular real person.

    In the Netherlands (for example), they have Sinterklaas who comes around with his… uhmmmm… black slaves… I mean black servants… uhmmmm… called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Intriguingly the bad kids get stuffed in a sack and taken to Spain, which to me doesn’t sound so bad for the kid (hey a free trip) but must have been thought horrible when they created that myth.

    Anyway, people (especially outside the Netherlands) have been taking that whole thing too seriously, not in believing they are real, but treating Zwarte Piet as if he is some icon for racism that must be changed or smashed. Ala the arguments presented here versus Santa, what could believing in Zwarte Piet mean for promoting racist beliefs in kids. It even made it to discussions in the UN, to force the Dutch to change Zwarte Piet? Oh the humanity.

    But I guess this feeling/mindset relies one particular claim in the essay…

    That may sound like an appeal to ignorance, but it all comes down to where the burden of proof lies; in the absence of any scientific evidence, what should be the default position?

    The default position to me would be to take a major chill pill. And I am not just aiming that barb at Dave. This is an argument I hear a lot on many different subjects and with which I completely disagree. Strongly. To me it is an argument from fear and an advocacy of cowardice (often calling for silly micro-managerial proscriptions to prevent others from simply having fun), which is more of a threat to critical thinking than enjoying fantasy figures during a holiday.

    If it was a credible threat, why has it (or any of the other host of fantasy characters) not affected the emergence of civilizations up until now?

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  28. We might attempt to be charitable in at least one regard. Doesn’t the parental backlash against the author, take the same theme that we here criticise when millennials flex their social media power? Yes lawsuits against “Grinches” do seem about like students who seek to oust professors that advocate free Halloween costume choice.

    I’m quite aware that as a child, I was lied to constantly. A good portion of this stemmed from the standard altruism theme that’s so widely promoted (and certainly given that my naive parents did buy into it). My discovery of “lies” like Santa, however, seem only to have helped teach me to search for greater falsehoods concerning widely propagated social assertions. How about this one: “Helping others, helps us all.” While crap, if you do have a product to sell, why not advertise how much good it does for others? People love to believe in (and brag about) their altruism.

    My wife and I have always been uncomfortable telling our son lies, and so yes, as the author suggests, we haven’t really pushed standard myths very much. But note that we strongly advocate reason over faith. In a world that’s highly influenced by the hope of religion however, shouldn’t we expect reason over faith to be the exception rather than the rule? Thus it seems to me that the author, though well intended, does happen to be attacking a small and benign symptom, of a far greater problem. Sure we’re having a bit of fun with this, though I’d have liked something deeper.

    EJ,

    You’ve shared a horrific memory above, so thanks. Such events may be deemed too foreign, or perhaps evil, for most to assess seriously. Not so for me. Even if not “norm”al, such horrors are most certainly “re”al. Any general model of human behavior which fails to account for the behavior of your grandmother, I think, needs improvement. We could begin with something as simple as, “People with problems, tend to cause problems.” But then how shall the term “problem” be defined? Here I could go into my own “subjective utilitarianism” theory, though mercifully, I’ll refrain.

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  29. David,

    I enjoyed it.

    I agree that referring to parts of the ‘Santa phenomenon’ as a lie is reasonably accurate. It’s doesn’t seem like other myths and fairy tales we tell our children. In those I think we clearly imply, or right out say, things like it’s a story, not really true, or make believe.

    Some personal context. When I was young we weren’t led to believe in Santa Claus, we had a Christmas tree, decorations, and opened presents from our parents on the 25th, and watched most of the Christmas movies and specials. As far as I can tell, we never thought Santa was true, and even though our presents only had our names on them, we always knew they were form our parents. And then as now, I can’t see we lost out on anything.

    On your paragraph with the header ‘The Santa Lie: Immoral, Unimaginative, Bad Parenting’. I feel the expression the ‘Santa lie’ overreaches, and that maybe the rest of the provocative title made it hard for readers not to generalized from the specific points you’re making, points which in themselves seem, again, reasonably accurate. For example, if I point out that Mary made a mistake on her math homework it doesn’t mean I’m saying that Mary is no good at math, and on the idea that children need imaginative play, I absolutely agree, the research on that is overwhelming, it’s ‘natural’, it’s what children do on their own and in groups, and parental participation doesn’t seem formally required (of course parental input and participation can be very valuable too, just as older siblings and friends participation is too), but in that context I don’t think the Santa phenomenon fits the definition of creative and imaginative play.

    (continued in part 2)

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  30. (part 2)

    On the promotions and dangers of credulity. I found you brought up a lot of interesting and good points. I won’t go into burden of proof, I’m not clear on that, but I’m fairly clear that the idea that at worse Santa is a harmless or cute prank is at least a hasty generalization (I may get into those points more in another comment here or on the other essay).

    When my brother was six or seven he asked my father if Santa was a real person, and my father told him that no, Santa wasn’t real. It looks like my brother had already deduced that, but just wanted confirmation; so that done the next day he told a class mate that Santa wasn’t real. That night my mother got a call form the boy’s mother — our family had ruined Christmas for them and she wanted my brother to recant and apologize. He didn’t — lie that is. The woman stayed mad at my mother, at least till we moved 5 years later.

    So I appreciate your last section ‘ Let’s Compromise’, I found it unhinges most objections, and puts the focus on honesty and clear thinking. Christmas is a lot of things to a lot of people, a lot of it good, and some of it great, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good thing to shift some attention away from Santa and move it more towards other ideas like St-Nick or anything else that might better promote social cohesion.

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  31. David,

    My prose still needs a lot of work. In my previous comments, apart from the expression ‘the Santa lie’ and the dangers of using a heading like “The Santa Lie: Immoral, Unimaginative, Bad Parenting”, my critiques were not directed at you but rather at comments others made.

    Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

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