KNAYSI: Immaculate deception

The myth of Santa Claus hurts kids more than it helps them

Now that we’ve entered the holiday delirium between Thanksgiving and Christmas, millions of parents and young children will indulge in that cherished seasonal tradition — the legend of Santa Claus. To start, let’s brush off the annoying convention of winking at the truth rather than stating it outright. I’ll say it: Santa is a lie perpetuated by parents and society. At the risk of being called a “scrooge,” I assert we should not deceive children about the existence of Father Christmas.

It’s clear the Santa Claus illusion cannot survive without deception, so what’s the scope of our dishonesty? It is not — as many parents claim — a simple “white lie” but rather a network of lies. To sustain the illusion, one must preserve a front of deception, complete with planted evidence (e.g. cookies and milk) and a detailed backstory (elves, flying reindeer and so on). Given the elaborate nature of these falsehoods — and the vulnerability of the population who ingests them — we hold an ethical responsibility to make a good-faith effort at justification.

Since parents expend so much time and energy on the myth, one might expect their children to receive large benefits in return. Increased happiness and a stimulated imagination are two of the most cited. Yet there is little to suggest that axing the Santa Claus lie would destroy these holiday perks. Wouldn’t children take as much pleasure — possibly more — in knowing that their parents (instead of a stranger) are responsible for their gifts? As for stimulating the imagination, if belief in St. Nick inspired creativity, then every child would naturally develop his own version of Santa Claus. Instead, children simply adopt the illusions their parents perpetuate.

The myth also discourages healthy skepticism. Naturally, a child questions a supernatural entity that seems inconsistent with their observations of the world. I remember asking my parents how such a large man fits down a narrow chimney or how he travels across the world in one night. But as kids interrogate their parents, they might be met with oversimplified explanations like “it’s magic” or “you just have to believe” — responses that dead-end any rational inquiry. And according to standard legend, overly skeptical children who don’t believe in Santa Claus receive coal.

The Santa Claus model of reward and punishment imparts a highly dysfunctional value system to children. Parents presumably want to teach their children to act ethically for the correct reasons — because it’s the “right thing to do” rather than for some ulterior motive. But the Santa Claus model works against this by training kids to behave well in exchange for presents. You cannot separate out these fickle incentives without destroying a central part of the mythology. Moreover, it implies that a complex human being can be reduced into categories of “naughty” or “nice” based on a small number of actions.

Similarly, Santa’s bizarre value system further enables our (nearly pathological) materialist culture. This problem characterizes the entire “holiday season,” but the figure of St. Nick makes it particularly easy for a young child to internalize these values. If Father Christmas plays the part of a god in the average child’s naïve worldview, he is surely a god of materialism. The advertising industry pushes this idea relentlessly, and the Santa myth ensures that children pay close attention to the goods marketed to them and their parents. For all the talk of “family,” “thankfulness” and “the important things in life,” Santa — as he currently stands in American mythology — is a tenacious distraction from such values.

Christmas encompasses more traditions than any other major American holiday. The “magic of the season” that people so frequently cite would remain intact without the Santa Claus deception. I could continue with arguments against the lies — issues of religion, of misplaced authority, of parent-child trust — but hopefully you get the point. Considering the benefits and costs to children, the Santa Claus myth seems to be more about parents than their kids. If we’re going to invest so much time and energy into a lie, let’s make it one that serves a constructive end.

George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

Published December 2, 2013 in FP test, Opinion

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