It’s time for Dr. Free-Ride to have a chat with the grown-ups. If you’re a kid and you’re reading this, think how much the adults in your life would appreciate it if you got up from the computer and put away your stuff that needs putting away (or played with your brother or sister nicely, or folded some socks).
I’ll have a post with some neat-o pictures in it up in a few hours.
OK, just grown-ups here? Let’s chat about the man in red.
Issue #1: Is opting into the Santa thing ethical?
This issue was raised in a comment on the New York Times Motherlode blog:
Lies. Just lies.
Though the child of good lapsed Catholics, I was never led to believe, and never did believe, in Santa. In fact, I got in some trouble in grammar school telling my classmates that it was all a hoax (thus, I learned about the “third rail” of primary school…). As a parent, I believe it is wrong – not just mischievous or a bad idea, but flat out morally wrong – to lie to one’s children. It certainly doesn’t set a good example for those “Why were you out so late?” moments of adolescence that are sure to come.
How, then, do I justify having allowed my wife to actively hoodwink my boy for eleven years (he figured it out last Christmas)?
I have no excuse, other than the old male standby of “ensuring domestic tranquility.”
When I first learned that my wife intended to do the whole Santa thing (which included “sightings” of Santa’s sled in the heavens on clear nights, snacks partially consumed not just by Santa, but by his reindeer, reindeer “droppings” by the tree, notes from Santa, and a host of other deceptions), I was truly horrified. I tried my best to reason with her, to talk her out of it, to soften the intensity of the campaign, but she would have none of it, and her choice of words made it clear to me that acquiescence was cheaper than divorce.
My one way of rationalizing my having allowed her to do this was that I NEVER participated in it in any way. Whenever he had a question, I would either give him a non-verbal answer (grunt or shrug), or I would tell him to ask his mom. If he asked a general question that bore on how the whole thing worked, I would give an entirely scientific answer to his question (about gravity or time zones, or what have you), but that was all.
Now that he’s twelve, he is under no illusions, but also seems more comfortable than I would like lying to his parents and teachers about any situation for which the truth might be inconvenient (a stunning array of alleged fates awaits every homework assignment or school handout).
Most infuriating moment of eleven years of Santa nonsense?
At about age nine, when, very angry at us, he told us how hurt he had been all these years that Santa, whom he’d never even met, had been bringing him all these presents every year, but his own parents only gave him one or two.
All I could do was stand there and smile. At both of them.
The commenter suggests that opting into the Santa thing is a bad idea because it requires the grown-ups involved to lie, and moreover that the likely result is a child who will, once the jig is up, be extremely comfortable lying herself.
I’m inclined to separate these claims.
Let’s take the second claim first. Are kids who are raised with the Santa thing on the road to becoming liars? If the Santa thing clearly resulted in a higher incidence of lying from the kids who were a part of it, or less of a felt commitment to the norm of truth-telling, I think there would be good reason to tread cautiously here. One of the hardest parts of parenting is helping kids establish good habits (and indeed, modeling those good habits for the kids). Undoing bad habits almost always seems to involve more work than laying down good habits to begin with.
However, I’m unaware of a body of empirical evidence that demonstrates a strong link between childhood belief in Santa Claus and being a big old liar-pants. Indeed, there are numerous liars who were raised without the Santa thing, and some former Santa-believers grow up to be ethicists.
So possibly there are other features of the commenter’s environment sufficient to explain his son’s lying. And given that he’s 12 years old, I’m guessing that there’s still time for him to outgrow it.
Onto the first claim. Is it immoral to lie to one’s children?
To the extent that raising honest children is a good thing, and to the extent that modeling honesty is important in raising honest children, I agree that in general lying to one’s kids is a bad call. However, I’m also inclined to think that there are circumstances where not telling the truth might be ethically warranted.
For example, if a cookie-obsessed three-year-old who really, really needs to eat some plant matter asks me if there are any cookies in the house, must I acknowledge the tube of Thin Mints hidden in the back of the freezer? Even if doing so leads to the mother of all tantrums and means that those broccoli pieces, carrots sticks, and apple slices get thrown rather than eaten? I don’t think so. Sure, you might worry that a lie here does not respect the autonomy of the person you are lying to, but a parent’s job includes being paternalistic in order that the three-year-old grows to the point where he can rationally exercise his autonomy.
Arguably, the Santa-thing does not involve lies in the service of necessary ends (like vegetable and fruit eating). And I definitely don’t want to argue that opting into the Santa-thing is ethically required. But I think there are ways to do the Santa thing that are not unethical.
The Free-Ride household does not have a set of elaborate positive claims about Santa Claus that the Free-Ride parents assert to the Free-Ride offspring. We do the Santa thing, but mostly we answer questions the sprogs bring to us about what they’ve heard or read or wondered about Santa. Our answers tend to emphasize our lack of direct empirical information about Santa himself. There’s a lot of “This is what I’ve heard, but it’s hard to know for sure,” and “This is what we used to find when we woke up on Christmas morning.” Also, we try to keep the “You’d better behave because Santa is watching!” to an absolute minimum. They ought to behave because that’s the best way to peacefully coexist in a family, or a classroom, or a community. Treating other people (and oneself) well is a year-round thing.
I suppose you could argue that we’ve mounted a tremendous multi-year hoax, but we really haven’t put much effort into maintaining it. Moreover, the point of it is not to put one over on our kids. Rather, we’re letting them be part of a shared cultural landscape of the imagination (maybe more so because the parents fill in so few of the details). On the grown-up’s end of things, I think there may also be an element of it that makes the gift-giving … purer? Less about getting credit for the thoughtfulness of the gift and more about just making the recipient happy.
I don’t know whether this means that someday the sprogs, having become wise to the situation, will feel that we have taken advantage of their ignorance for our own gratification. I’m ready to answer for our decisions if we’re taken to task for them. But right now, the kids and the parents alike are getting something pleasant out of it.
It’s worth noting that if you opt in to the Santa thing, you are also opening the door to questions about kids who are not part of the Santa thing, whether for religious or cultural reasons or because they are desperately poor. You need to be ready to have those conversations.
Issue #2: If you’re a kid who’s figured out the Santa thing, is continuing to play along ethical?
This issue was raised by Cath@VWXYNot? in a comment on a post at DrugMonkey:
What if, as a kid, you found out that Santa doesn’t exist, but kept this fact from your parents for a few years, because you knew you’d get more presents that way?
Hypothetically, of course.
I don’t think there is an obligation on the part of a kid to inform one’s parents if one has concluded the Santa thing is not reality-based. Especially if one’s parents still seem to be enjoying household rituals around the Santa thing, it does them no harm to let them continue.
It’s likely that a kid will reach an age where the parents assume the kid must have done the math and figured it out. It’s not necessarily the case at that point, however, that there will suddenly be fewer presents (or less expensive ones, or more practical ones). Santa can still function to provide cover to someone who wants to give a gift that is appreciated for itself, and for the spirit of giving behind it, rather than wanting to get the credit for it or to incur a perceived gift-debt from the recipient. When everyone in the household is in on the Santa thing, sometimes there are a bunch more presents from Santa (each with different handwriting on the tags).
I figure if a parent asks directly, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus,” it is probably best to answer honestly. But if a parent doesn’t ask directly, it may be because he or she doesn’t need to know.