Thursday, December 16, 2010

'Tis the Season for the Santa Debate

A few years ago, when my siblings and I were starting to have kids, we were talking together about what we would tell our kids about Santa. We all had fond memories of the magic of Christmas morning, waking up to a bulging stocking and a tree littered with presents. We remembered outgrowing the myth, but still enjoying the traditions, first for the sake of our little brother who still believed, and later, just for the joy of it.

We discussed all of the major arguments that are put forward in defense of telling your kids Santa isn't real. Personally, I think, "If I'm going to spend all this money on gifts, I want to get the credit for it," is the weakest reason out there. You should never give gifts to get credit. You should give gifts for the benefit of the recipient, and if they will enjoy the gift more if it comes wrapped in magic, isn't that what matters most? The joy THEY derive from receiving the gift?

To me, the most compelling argument is, "We teach our children not to lie, so we shouldn't lie to them." It makes sense. How can we willingly deceive our kids? And, as a Christian, there is the added, "If we lie to them about Santa, they will think we lied to them about Jesus."

But all three of us grew up believing in Santa, and while we outgrew the Santa myth, all three of us are Christians today. I really don't think being "lied" to as a child shaped our adult belief in Jesus. Really, parents, do you want your kids to believe in Jesus just because you said so? That's a pretty weak basis for faith. Kids will, and should, scrutinize everything you told them as they grew up, and choose to accept or reject your faith on their own terms. The important thing to teach your kids is not facts, but critical thinking.

And then there's the problem of fiction. If we want our kids to grow up only believing true things, do we keep all fiction out of the house? I believed that TV characters were real, does that mean my parents lied to me by letting me watch Sesame Street? Shall we ban theater, like the puritans? There has to be room for fiction, even in the Christian life. Jesus told parables, and while they rang true and demonstrated truths, they probably weren't factually true. Jesus kept secrets, too. In the Bible, he often leaves things hanging, or answers with a question, or flat out says, "You won't understand. Ask me when you're older." (Okay, maybe I'm paraphrasing a bit.)

Our dad "lied" to us all the time. He told wild stories that we knew contained only a seed of truth, but we enjoyed them anyway. And it never affected our ability to trust him with our lives. Part of the joy of fiction and fantasy is the suspension of disbelief. You have to believe that dragons exist and dogs can talk and horses can fly. Otherwise the stories are just dumb. With no fantasy in our lives, we end up like the little girl in Miracle on 34th Street, whose mother refused to "lie" to her, and she ended up having no wonderment, no belief in magic, no childhood, really. Even without the "Wow, he really was Santa," conclusion, I still feel bad for her. Shouldn't kids, I don't know, get to be kids?

Even my mom, the most honest person we know, so honest that if she accidentally told people that her newest grandchild weighed 8lbs5oz instead of 8lbs4oz, she would call everyone back and apologize profusely, even SHE lied to us about Santa growing up. That's when my mom jumped into the conversation from the other room. She had NEVER lied to us about Santa! NEVER! But what about the Santa presents? There were always presents from Mom and Dad, but there were also presents from Santa. Wasn't writing "From Santa" on the label lying? Nope, she never wrote anything on them, "Santa" presents were unlabeled, we just assumed they were from Santa. But what about that time I asked how Santa could get into our house without a chimney, and you gave that really great explanation about being able to shrink down small enough to fit into any crack, even a keyhole? Nope, all she did was ask me how I thought he did it, and I came up with that ridiculous explanation all on my own.

We all sat in stunned silence as we processed this. We thought back over our childhood, and all the subtle assumptions our mother had allowed us to believe, but that we really had made ourselves believe. That note from the tooth fairy that wasn't signed. The time I woke up and caught my mom hiding my Easter basket, and she said nothing, but I decided the Easter Bunny was running late that year, and just dropped the baskets off with parents. Honestly, I think our belief in the myths was stronger because we had been allowed to defend them to ourselves. It's easier to pick apart other people's arguments than your own.

The thing is, none of us cared if we had been lied to about Santa. We were mostly just surprised that we hadn't been lied to, since our belief was so strong.

Something I've come to realize about childhood fantasies, at least about mine, is that kids "know" on some level that they are participating in a fantasy. In the same way that kids can believe in their imaginary friends even though they "know" they aren't real because they made them up. It doesn't stop them from believing it with all their hearts, but when they outgrow the myth, when they are ready to stop believing, it usually is with a bit of a shrug and an "I kinda knew all along." Adults bending over backwards to try and convince them that Santa is real, or to protect them from finding out the devastating truth, is just confusing to kids. We don't need to make up midi-chlorians when the Force is enough. I think it's those kids who end up bitter and angry when they find out that they had been lied to about Santa. Adults being so passionately on board with the Santa myth makes them wonder if maybe it does belong in the realm of non-fantasy. But eventually, someone will slip up, and those kids will feel betrayed.

So, in the Great Santa Debate, I am advocating a middle ground: passive non-resistance. The Santa advocates want their kids to have magic in their lives, and the no-Santa advocates don't want to deceive their kids; this is the best of both worlds. When Valerie asks me general questions about Santa, like "Who pulls Santa's sleigh?" I will happily tell her everything I know about the myth, in the same way that I will happily answer questions about other works of fiction without having to explain, "You know, sweetie, Big Bird isn't real." But if she asks me practical application questions, like "How will Santa get into our house without a chimney?" I will defer to her much more vast imagination. (The in-between grey areas, like "How does Santa manage to visit every child in the world in one night?" I don't mind answering "Magic.") And if she asks me why we celebrate Christmas, I will tell her the story of God becoming man, and being born in a manger. As she grows up, she will separate the true stories from the fictional stories, and she will see reflected in my life which ones I believe.

Thanks, mom, for giving me the gift of fantasy, and the gift of a solid Christian role model. And thank you for teaching me the best trick in the parenting book, "That's a good question, what do you think?"


Anonymous said...

Love that response!!! Will have to use that with my children. :)
Sometimes when I teach, I do something a bit the same, and ask them to fill in parts of a story on their own. I even use it for their behavior (he hit me! Why?) and self evaluation (where you a good student today? What did you do well? Tell me what you think you could do better). They take it much more seriously than when we tell them what to think! :)

jd said...

Thanks, Jule Ann. You made my day.

Alana said...

One of your best posts ever! Funny, I was just having a very similar conversation with some newlyweds this week. Yay for fantasy and imagination!

Anonymous said...

We didn't know what to do about Santa and then just decided not to focus on him nor teach about him as if he's real. Our kids all seemed to believe in Santa at some point anyway despite us. My FIL is now a mall Santa, so not only do our littlest believe Santa is real (my 5 year old told me this year that Santa's real), they think their grandpa IS Santa. Again, we do not play the game or play along...and they still believe.


Anonymous said... about thinking too much about a kid's idea on Santa. 99% of kids do not get that upset once they find out he isn't real. The kids are usually mature enough to handle it when they learn the truth.

Speaking of fantasy, who's this jesus guy?