Adventures in Ethics and Science

Santa Claus and ethics.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Kim
    December 21, 2009

    We tend to play agnostic about Santa Claus. But although we’ve done stockings every year, this is the first time we’ve had serious enthusiasm about Santa (along with lots of questions about how things work). It’s fun, so we play along… but Santa is a fairly minimal part of Christmas (as it was traditionally in both of our families – just stockings, not additional presents). At the very least, playing along keeps the kid from being the one who spoils the fun for his friends.

    My mother is convinced that my sister lied about believing in Santa until she was in high school. (I was tipped off by a friend in 1st grade. I was devastated when my mom showed me the jar of baby teeth collected by the “tooth fairy.”) It was fun playing along for the sake of my sister all those years, though.

    As for really traumatic Xmas traditions: my kid was terrified of the person wearing a reindeer costume in the mall when he was three or so. (It didn’t help that the reindeer had really crazy eyes.) It was months before he would go back… and then the Easter Bunny was there. Ran and screamed.

  2. #2 Cath@VWXYNot?
    December 21, 2009

    “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.”

    LOL! I feel better now. My parents (especially my Dad) are way more into the Christmas rituals than my sister and I ever were. When our life-size, articulated, cardboard Santa door hanging thingy finally broke apart after 15 years of service, my Dad was more upset than when the cat died.

  3. #3 Rob Knop
    December 21, 2009

    I remember when I was a kid — junior high age or some such? — and my sister was two years younger. We’d reached the age where my parents assumed we’d figured out Santa wasn’t real. (I think I did in about 3rd grade, but “played along” because it was kind of fun.) My mom made some offhand comment about how we could return some gift because they got it at Macy’s (or some such), and my sister burst into tears, saying she thought Santa had brought it. I think she *knew*, but didn’t want it to be so….

    The thing is, we always had just *one* “Santa” present. The rest were from our parents, relatives, etc. So, that dodged the whole issue of not giving credit where credit is due for gifts. (Also dodged the whole “purer” issue, I guess, but, well, you can’t have it all.)

  4. #4 Onkel Bob
    December 21, 2009

    I blew the link the last time, this time I will be more careful: Sorry Virginia. “[F]lat out immoral”? Makes a good point especially in this time of “magical thinking.”

  5. #5 icebrc
    December 21, 2009

    Curious, do your children actually believe Santa is real?
    If so, is this not because of your doing?

    I’m curious, because I believe perpetuating the Santa myth is unethical regardless of the effects it might have on their upbringing.

    I am in a split home, their mother pushes the myth and I’m always in a tough spot because I will not encourage it (something we agreed on when we were still in the same home). I politely tell them it is a game that adults play, but ultimately they believe her. They think I am wrong and that I just “don’t believe” (‘believing is seeing’).

  6. #6 foole
    December 21, 2009

    Are kids who are raised with the Santa thing on the road to becoming liars?

    I thought there was a correlation between lying and intelligence. Though really, just being a living human seems to preclude one to a life of lying (some more than others).

    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.”

    How is that different from lying? Is that not lying by omission?

    I agree that not all lying is unethical, but I’m still not sure about Santa Claus. If a child feels betrayed once they learn the truth, what does that mean? Does it matter if they get over it? Wouldn’t most adults still consider it a lie if our spouses cheated on us (even if we got over the transgression)?

    From what I’ve seen, I think Santa Claus is more for the adults than for the children. I think most kids don’t really care about whether or not Santa is real so long as they get presents. The adults, however, seem to get quite a lot of joy at perpetuating the myth (I must plead guilty to this as well).

    I find it interesting, though, that for children the belief in Santa once they start doubting is often presented in the same vein as Pascal’s Wager: do you really want to risk *not* gettin presents in case he’s real.

  7. #7 cicely
    December 21, 2009

    Well…in raising our son, my husband and I treated the Santa as being just as ‘real’ as any of the myriad D&D characters he saw played, and for similar reasons; that it’s a fun game, all the players are complicit in the “willing suspension of disbelief” required to play the game, and that it is possible for it to be taken too seriously. We did explain that some families treated the fantasy just as if it were real, and that some kids were encouraged to believe in it. It seems to have worked out all right.

    On the “are there any cookies” question, my solution was just to tell him, “Yes, but you can’t have any right now”. Eventually (not always peacefully…) he learned that he couldn’t always have everything he wanted, just because it was there. And that also seems to have worked out all right.

    Different kids, though, different reactions. YMMV.

  8. #8 Catharine
    December 21, 2009

    I came across an interesting title the other day: Tinsel by Stuever (? can’t read my own writing.) Anyway, sure I’m glad we don’t have to deal with this sort of thing. But if it’s okay to lie to your kids about Santa, then is it okay to lie to your kids about god? Or does having the false belief yourself mean you’re not *really* lying? We don’t need to lie to our kids: the truth is hard enough to believe.

  9. #9 James Gray
    December 22, 2009

    When I started to suspect something, I asked my mom if Santa was real. I was serious and wanted serious answers. She gave me the run around and I felt that this was a breach of trust at the time.

  10. #10 skeptifem
    December 22, 2009

    “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.”

    I kinda got lost at this part. the kid might have a tantrum because there aren’t any cookies in the house in this case. Children have tantrums over all kinds of things, it is hard to avoid and I am not sure that it accomplishes anything to prevent a tantrum over a fact of life that they will need to get used to (like the fact that there are limits on cookie consumption). I don’t see much of a point in lying in the example given, or any cases really. There are age appropriate explanations for damn near everything.

    As far as children lying more as a result- I have never seen that as the central issue. It was more about respect within families. When parents lie to kids- especially for something like this, that ultimately boils down to the amusement of adults, it makes the adults less respectable. Parents lose some integrity and become a less credible source of information. The best thing I could come up with as a result of this is that kids could end up questioning authority, but there are more ethical ways to make that goal important to kids. They are people too and don’t deserve having their inexperience used for the amusement of others.

  11. #11 Jefrir
    December 22, 2009

    Provided you don’t try to convince kids that Santa really exists once they’ve started figuring it out, I don’t see it as an issue. The people I’ve heard who felt betrayed when they found out seem to have had parents who really, really didn’t want them to stop believing. I think the best option is to treat it as a bit of fun, but not insist on trying to fool you’re kids once they’re older.
    Actually, I think it can be quite a good introduction to critical thinking, and to the idea that adults aren’t always right or truthful. I certainly remember various ways I tried to disprove Santa, like pretending to be asleep, or leaving a note for him to sign.
    We also had only minor presents from Santa (an actual stocking-full, no more) whereas major presents came from parents. This avoided some of the issue of feeling I had to believe to get presents.

  12. #12 Eric Lund
    December 22, 2009

    I’m not sure whether it helps or hurts that Americans place Santa’s HQ at the North Pole, which is in the middle of an ocean (well, an ice sheet, at least for now). As a grad student, I learned from my Scandinavian collaborators that Europeans place his HQ, somewhat more plausibly, in northern Finland. (We were in the field in Fairbanks, Alaska, which is 13 miles northwest of a town called North Pole. Said town is not even north of the Arctic Circle.) The Finland location explains why he uses reindeer to pull his sleigh: they are native to the area.

    And speaking of that sleigh: Most of the US doesn’t have snow on the ground at Christmas time. Even here in New Hampshire, the chance of a white Christmas is only about one in three. I grew up in Florida, where I was assured that Santa switched over to a golf cart, but for how many children is the sleigh one of the clues that the whole thing is a hoax?

  13. #13 becca
    December 22, 2009

    The question is: if you believe in broccoli, are you doing a good job of rationally exercising your own autonomy by having thin mints in the back of the freezer?
    Clearly, the solution to ethical dilemas such as these are to give all the thin mints to me.

  14. #14 Peggy
    December 22, 2009

    Santa fundamentalists on both sides of the aisle crack me up. My parents never lied – I grew up with secular Christians and a few years of formal religious training in which the bible was interpreted as parable. Instead, they told us Santa was the “Spirit of Christmas” (giving rather than receiving, sharing with those more vulnerable, celebrating the people we love, etc.), although we were under strict orders not to taunt the true believers. These first glimpses into the mysteries of adulthood were fodder for beautiful conversations and inspired noble action (*lol*) – we were very proud our parents recognized our obvious brilliance and entrusted us with this precious secret. Did this set us up to become relativists and bleeding heart liberals? Probably, but it’s a burden I plan to inflict on my progeny.

  15. #15 Santa's Little Elf
    December 22, 2009

    I wonder if people who play into the Santa ruse are more likely to sockpuppet?

  16. #16 SockMonkey
    December 22, 2009

    In a word Elfie, no. Hater.

  17. #17 bioephemera
    December 22, 2009

    I first questioned and rejected the plausibility of a Santa when I realized that if reindeer could fly, they’d be able to escape their enclosure in the zoo. I was three. But my family persisted in the “Santa” charade almost ten more years. We all knew no one was buying it, but my mom liked to play the game, and I would have been embarrassed to insist on changing the rules. Families have their own strange traditions, and Santa seems fairly innocuous. On the other hand, if the parents aren’t into it, it’s not going to be any fun.

  18. #18 Katherine
    December 22, 2009

    I felt more betrayed at the way my dad chose to kill Santa for us, though I’d been more wanting to believe than actually believing for a few years then. He threatened us with no Santa, not in the usual “if you don’t be good” way but in the “you know who Santa really is” way. I couldn’t inflict Santa on my kids after that but I think (as some people above did) I might leave it to my partner to decide what to do when and if we do have kids.

  19. #19 Miki Z
    December 22, 2009

    We did the secular Santa thing for a few years with our son, but we were always clear to him that we were Santa. “Santa” bought him the presents that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted with them (which was usually to play with them for a few days and then give them to the children’s shelter). We cautioned him that some children really believed in a Santa other than their parents and that telling them would be cruel.

    On the issue of lying to your kids, my wife and I both believed that we had a moral imperative to teach our son how to lie as well as when it was and was not appropriate to do so. It seemed (still does) clearer to us than trying to categorize whether something is really a lie or not. He’s graduating from college this year with a deep and abiding scorn for cheaters and plagiarists, because that is not a time when it is acceptable to lie.

  20. #20 Leah
    December 23, 2009

    My brothers and I are between 25 and 30, and my mom still does the Santa thing. I’m not sure I ever really believed in Santa (I don’t remember how it was presented in my house), but the Santa present is still a fun little tradition. My mom also gives us stockings on St. Nicholas Day (Dec 6), and we all play along that it’s from St. Nick. I think there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I also really like Miki Z’s method. Good to be transparent but still celebrate the holiday tradition.

  21. #21 mike
    December 25, 2009

    Ok, I just got gutted upstairs in the ER for telling the nurses that I would not stop my child from telling the other classmates that his parents(us) told him the truth about Christmas. They said that it “takes away thier right to believe.” Wow… just.. wow. Since when has anyone ever been capable of taking away “the right to believe.” By it’s nature, belief is separate and independent of any and all forces except those of the person holding the belief. To put it simply, my feelings about your beliefs do NOT change your “right” to continue feeling your own. No matter what I say, you still have your “right.” You may, however, after hearing my beliefs, CHOOSE to change your own. Which, is YOUR choice and has not violated ANY right. If parent’s so desperately want thier child to believe in a myth, then when thier children say that they were told by another person he does not exist, then they can simply lie again and tell them that that person was wrong. It’s really just a matter of continuing to lie at that point and they can do so to thier hearts content. But don’t tell me I have to tell my child not to spread his beliefs. He is entittled to his beliefs and can express them if he choses. So, angry parents, shout away, it doesn’t matter. My child will know the truth and be very very happy in it. My parents did the same, and I love them very deeply for not fabricating lies. We got our presents from them and celebrated decorations and food and song like everyone else. We simply just didn’t believe a fat guy in a red suit would fall down our chimney with a bag full of toys.

  22. #22 Isabel
    December 25, 2009

    I highly recommend the book “How Come Christmas” by Roark Bradford. My friends and family often read this book aloud on Christmas. In the words of one reviewer:

    “It is interesting how Roark spins the tale of Jesus, and Santa Claus and how at the end of this short story, both of them seem so necessary to make our Christmas story complete. For me, it will be a tradition to read out load at Christmastime. A must read!”

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