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.  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.”  Sure, people were annoyed and the Catholic League erected billboards in response.  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  and in 2011, a local Fox News anchor had to apologize on air for saying there was no Santa. 
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.  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.”  (The same goes for “The Elf on the Shelf”. ) 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.”  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. Others will employ ridiculous explanations that defy all logic and scientific fact. Others, when lacking any other explanation, will simply appeal to magic. Still others will suggest (along with Francis Church)  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  and Planned Parenthood  and consequently called for the defunding or elimination of these organizations. (In the case of ACORN, these efforts were successful.) 
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  into believing in alternative medicine—which not only doesn’t work,  but is so harmful  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.  Consequently, they have stopped vaccinating their kids and caused epidemics of preventable diseases. 
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,  that supply side economics  (a.k.a. cutting taxes on “job creators” or trickle-down economics) is good for the economy,  and that voter fraud is a problem. 
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 ; the Benghazi fiasco cost taxpayers millions and could likely influence the next election ; and conspiracy theories about Obama wanting to disarm the entire country have made meaningful gun regulation politically impossible  and further mass shootings inevitable. 
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,  being duped by sciencey sounding arguments,  excusing away scientific evidence,  and even invoking conspiracy theories.  Climate change denial may very well be the critical thinking mistake that dooms the human race—perhaps it already has. 
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.  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.  “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.  Like guns, Santa is just too much of a sacred cow; we don’t want to know what effect he is having.
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).
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