Sunday, December 19, 2004

Why Preach Santaism?

Lots of parents lie to their children, repeatedly and ardently, about the existence of Santa Claus. Why? Santaism imposes large costs on parents, both the moral costs of lying and the opportunity costs of losing credit for well-regarded gifts. Yet Santaism does not appear to offer countervailing benefits. You don't need that mythical construct to tie good behavior to good gifts; parents routinely use carrots and sticks to get their kids to act appropriately. As d said of Santa Claus last night, during our long drive home from a dinner party, "What's in it for the parents?"

I can think of a few answers, though I don't regard any as very satisfactory. Herewith a quick survey: 1) Unthinking adherence to custom leads parents to ignore the unimpressive cost/benefit ratio of Santaism; 2) Convincing kids about the existence of Santa offers parents the benefit of exercising over their children the power afforded by superior knowledge, a form of power useful in other areas of socialization; 3) Parents who feel anxious about their ability to provide pleasing gifts regard Santa as a form of insurance—he offers a convenient fall guy.

As should be evident, we don't practice Santaism in our household. It's not just that the costs outweigh the benefits for us parents, either. We think that exploiting the trust of your kids, setting them up for an inevitable and heart-breaking disappointment, imposes large net costs on them.

32 comments:

Neal said...

I wish you hadn't made all these points so painfully obvious, as it's worsened my cognitive dissonance over the practice. We're thinking of it as part of the "magic," and as a fun little mystery that kids can feel proud of themselves for solving and joining the club. But I guess that's just rationalization, isn't it?

Neal said...

Still waiting for my earlier comment to show up. For now, though, i recommend this truth-about-Santa story from my friend Greg: http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000687.html.

Tom W. Bell said...

Ah, gee, Neal, don't be too hard on yourself. I can imagine a parenting model that does present Santa as a bit of mystery, one that the parents don't take too seriously and that the kids can take pleasure in solving. Indeed, the presentation might sound a lot like the sort of phrasing I use to when describing religious views to my daughter: "Well, honey, a lot of smart people say that [fill in the blank] exists. I don't find their arguments very convincing, myself, but I might be wrong. I think that you need to keep on open mind about it and figure that one out for yourself. And even if you end up disagreeing with all those many, many people who believe in [fill in the blank], you should treat them with respect. They *might* be right and, anyway, they usually don't take criticism very well."

Glen Whitman said...

Here's an explanation that doesn't seem to fit in your three categories: Santa provides a reward-and-punishment scheme that *appears* out of the parents' hands. "I can't help it if you didn't get many gifts -- I guess *Santa* thought you were naughty."

Anonymous said...

Oh no, Tom, not you! You've swallowed too much algae and turned green like the Grinch. I've never stopped believing in Santa and I can say that it has only positively influenced my life. I've learned that in spite of the Atkins craze, its still okay to be fat AND jolly. It's okay to dress in a goofy flaming red and white outfit and still be accepted by little kids as long as you're bearing gifts. Santa may have bad breath and be campy but he is NOT a pedophile and does not get excited when a child sits on his lap. Reindeers can fly and don't require a GPS gizmo to find your house in dark of night. Santa does have his faults though. Using Mrs. Claus for cover is so '50s. He should knock on the door no matter how late the hour and not risk getting stuck in the chimney like a common burglar. He should pay the elves better and give them better working conditions even though there's no minimum wage law at the North Pole. And that HO! HO! HO! bit is so corny. Tom, if you could stop saying "Bah Humbug" long enough to look, you might even find a present under the tree for YOU!

-Santa's helper

Anonymous said...

The only rationale for Santaism I had ever heard before reading Tom's blog was that it might help reduce kids' sense of complete and utter dependence on their parents' benevolence. I don't vouch for this rationale, but some adults, at any rate, do feel awkward when they benefit from extraordinary and repeated generosity from others (e.g., from wealthy relatives), especially when they can't reciprocate the generosity; perhaps that's part of the reason why some philanthropists prefer to donate anonymously.

Anonymous said...

Tom didn't mention it, but when Jade was younger we neither perpetuated nor discouraged Santaism (flip a few letters around, ya got "Satanism". Hmm...) One day when Jade was 3 1/2, we passed Santa's house while strolling through a mall. Since she had always been wary of costumed characters at amusement parks, we never bothered to take her picture with Santa.

By 3 1/2, however, she was over her fear of costumed characters and seemed ripe to enjoy the rite of passage. So I asked, "Do you want to get your picture taken with Santa?" "OK," she replied. We went back to his house, only to discover he was on his break (out at his car, smoking ciggies and drinking from a brown paper bag, no doubt).

We walked around for about 15 minutes and decided to try again. I saw Santa walking back to his house and said, "Hey, there he is. Let's go."

She looked, pointed at him and asked, "Is THAT him?"

"Yeah, let's go!"

She stopped in her tracks and said, "Ohhhh no! I'm not taking a picture with a guy wearing a disguise. You go tell him that, Mommy."

Every year around this time we live in fear that she's gonna blow the illusion for all her peers, but she knows better than to do that.

As for Glen's rationale for why parents practice Santaism, I don't really buy it. It would be different if kids who were bad actually really didn't get presents, but I just don't think that's the case. I think that for those who celebrate xmas, buying presents for the kids is a must-do and parents always give in--regardless of whether their kids are "naughty or nice." So what does that do to their incentives to behave?

JB said...

Perhaps the adherance to custom ascribes a benefit to the parents and even the children. A desire to be a part of the family custom that they were drawn into when they were young, in the additional hope that years from now, their children might share the same Christmas custom with their children. It is not suprising that the value of tradition as tradition be overlooked, but tradition has a value in and of itself. It allows families to share in the same experiences although at different times. Then again it could just be about the milk and cookies.

Adam Crouch said...

Most parents probably just do it for the fun, the magic of it all. Santa makes the Christmas spirit seem grander, and parents enjjoy seeing their kids get so excited and so wrapped up in it all. Isn't that what makes having kids fun?

Julian said...

I remember positing an explanation very much like Glen's when I was a kid, which sort of increased my irritation at the whole business. I remember being both vaguely offended that my parents expected me to believe such a transparently BS story and sort of perplexed at why they'd want to lie to me. I didn't think it was magical and wonderful; it just upset me. Fortunately, they gave up on the whole business pretty quickly. I'm definitely not going to try to foist any such thing on any children I might have.

Anonymous said...

Why can't Santa just be a good story? My parents never seemed particularly invested in us actually believing the Santa story. They had a little twinkle in their eyes when they told us about it, and we figured it out on our own without trauma before too long. There are all sorts of stories like that--the easter bunny and the tooth fairy being the other biggies.

Children like to play make believe. They like to imagine there's magic in the world. It's not terribly useful or important to disabuse them of those tendencies at a young age. Lots of kids think they're Power Rangers or Princesses or Luke Skywalker, etc. How is believe Santa brings them presents any different?

I also don't really understand the alleged downsides. You feed, house, and clothe your children every day. I'm not sure why it's important that you recieve gratitude for the presents you give them at Christmas as well. And as for the "moral costs of lying"... um, I can't imagine there are very many kids who actually come to have a lower opinion of their parents because they participated in the Santa Claus fantasy.

-Tim

Anonymous said...

The thing is, we don't perpetuate the Santa myth, and Jade still finds wonder and fun in all our celebration. I'd venture to say she is just as excited about the next kid. She loves putting up the tree, hanging ornaments, stringing lights, making crafts. Today she learned how to wrap presents and said, "when I was younger, I always wanted to learn to do this. Now I'm so excited we can wrap presents together, Mom!"


Tom is not a Scrooge, nor is he an automoton when it comes to his kids. Today he and Jade made gingerbread cookies from scratch, and as I write they are decorating them. Sure, they didn't limit themselves only to the traditional gingerbread boy and girl cookie cutters that we had as kids, but they are creating their own tradition of gingerbread sharks and turtles with lightning rods on the shell. Jade loves this part of the holiday season and finds as much "magic" in it as those other kids who believe in stuff she never bought in to.

Okay, so maybe telling your kids about Santa is just a "harmless lie", but it puts you in the position of having to make up a bunch of other lies to support it. One friend told me about all the many other lies to explain discrepancies in wrapping paper, and how Santa can be in so many places at once, and why Santa only brings some things but not others, etc.

I know plenty of people that still remember their disappointment when they learned Santa was a big lie. Yes,they got over it. But I can't imagine their parents felt good about it once their fraud was revealed. Tom and I never wanted to be the type of parents that would look their kid in the eye someday and say, "You're right, we lied! HA HA! We did it because we thought you'd enjoy it!"

Kids are not fools; they will model the behavior they see in their parents, and they often lack the judgment to distinguish between "good lies" and "bad lies."

Anonymous said...

Apparently belief in Santa is beneficial in some way according an article in BBC news. Psychologists haven't really found long term negative effects of believing in Santa. Instead it's the parents who are more dissapointed when kids find out Santa is not real. Belief in Santa is supposed to help with the belief in God. (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1382577,00.html)
But I don't buy that. There were plenty of kids at the church I used to attend who believed in God without the Santa myth. Their parents did not want to confuse their children with santa lies nor easter bunny especially b/c both stories actually take away true meaning of Christmas and Easter. And I think a lot of parents didn't want to teach deception and materialism to their kids.

I also read another psychological study of the benefits of imaginary friends and how important it was for cognitive development(http://www.uwnews.org/article.asp?articleID=6814I). I would think Santa and the Easter bunny could fall in this category.

When i was a kid, I remember Santa got me this sucky Mimi doll one year and I was totally dissapointed and concluded that Santa is impersonal. And I quickly found out he wasn't real and I didn't care but never really put it together that it was my parents who got me that sucky gift. But I did have a friend who's brother found out Santa and Easter bunny wasn't real and cried for an hour.

sk

Anonymous said...

Santa Claus: Naughty or Nice?
http://my.webmd.com/content/Article/97/104275.htm?pagenumber=3

Gil said...

I think Tom's right to want to avoid lying to his children, and that fostering a literal belief in Santa is not a critical part of letting kids enjoy the "magic" of Christmas.

I think most parents do it purely because it's a tradition that they think is nice and fun and they don't really think of it as lying; but just participating in a cool part of our culture that kids will come to apprciate.

I also think that a part of the rationale is to encourage kids to have faith; to believe in something because their parents and peers say it's true and to discount commons sense and evidence that might conflict with this. It is religious preparation, whether parents think of it in those terms explicitly or not.

What really annoys me is when people make children feel bad for being skeptical about Santa Claus. That's one aspect of The Polar Express that I didn't care for, for example. The point seemed to be that the child was defective to some extent because he had an insufficient capacity to "BELIEVE", when he was actually reacting reasonably to the available evidence. This lesson doesn't help kids. It hurts them.

Glen Whitman said...

Hmm. If it is indeed religious preparation, I wonder what kind. It might actually work in the opposite direction. Being told by all the authorities that something is true, and then finding out it's bogus by the age of 7, might instill a dose of skepticism.

Anonymous said...

Mom figured that if we hadn't figured it out already by preschool/elementary school, that she should just go ahead and tell us. Not that Mom and Dad really went out of their way to have us believe in Santa--they just put goofy names on all the To/From labels. I received things from the Cookie Monster as well as from someone who signed his name "figs and apples" (which was my Dad's idea--I was supposed to figure out that apples and figs were connected because of Newton--Isaac Newton and his falling apple and Fig Newtons). Anyway, the reason she said she wanted us to know about Santa not being real is so we wouldn't think that Santa played favorites with the rich kids. Those kids get whatever they want all year and then Santa gives them even more stuff. While the poor kids still don't get much of anything! She thought that sent a really horrible message and that honesty about people being able to afford gifts or whatnot was a lot fairer.
-Ellen

Anonymous said...

Also, I think it would have been difficult for Mom and Dad to explain why there would be a Santa but not, say, an Easter Bunny. This was because Christmas only had to deal with presents of the non-food variety, and if food was given it could be nuts or dates or something and we wouldn't necessarily wonder about it. At Easter, though, everyone else received chocolates and stuff like that. Mom had a no-sugar rule, so at Easter we got nothing or weird stuff in our eggs (Glen got nutrigrain cereal one year; another year I got Confucious sayings written by Neal). So either there was no Easter Bunny or the Easter Bunny sucked so much that he couldn't even break Mom's rule for one day and give us normal stuff. Conclusion: no Easter Bunny. And probably no other gift-bearing entities on the other holidays either.
Ellen

Josh said...

I can think of one other explanation similar to number 2, but distinct enough to mention. Santa "sees you when your sleeping, he knows when you're awake." Santa has omniscience, which the parents do not have. The child is going to discover that their parents do not know what they are doing at all times much more quickly than an entity that they never see and only rewards or punishes them once a year. Since the judgement on gifts is made based on the entire year the child cannot easily ascertain whether Santa observed cerrtain actions or not and may be more likely to be convinced that he was observed and that his gifts reflect his behavior cumulatively over the course of the year. The interesting question then is whether or not a parent should assume the child did a certain number of bad deeds as a baseline at a particular age and shoot low on gifts so that they can increase the value of the gifts over time in the hopes that a child will strive for better gifts each year by being a better person.

Anonymous said...

What about the Tooth Fairy?

I bet you don't believe in imaginary friends, either. Your world sounds so sterile and literal.

Anonymous said...

What ABOUT the tooth fairy?? Failure to believe in her means we live a sterile and literal life??

I take from those comments that you think that if parents don't actively create a magical world for their kids (or "lie," to put it another way), that the parents--and perhaps their kids--must live emotionally void lives. That simply does not follow. As I noted in earlier comments, my and Tom's daughter loves Christmas as much as the next kid. I don't understand why some people believe that if kids don't believe in Santa, the "magic" of Christmas is lost. People, there is so much more to it than the presents! Isn't that what we want to teach our kids?

It is perfectly natural for children to have imaginary friends, but I think a child's "relationship" with imaginary friends is very different from the one she might have with the mythical gift-givers like Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Children create their imaginary friends; parents don't do it for them. Nor, I suspect, can they. I think children have imaginary friends that reflect their needs or wishes.

Believe it or not, Jade had imaginary friends when she was younger and they were just that: friends. They were talking animals to whom she could relate, or little girls with pretty names, or princesses that let her borrow their dresses and shoes, or the characters from "Peanuts." They were not adult figures in whom she had to believe in order to get a bunch of stuff. And we never once tried to tell her they weren't real.

Incidentally, Jade doesn't believe in the Tooth Fairy either. Every time a tooth gets loose she'll tell us, "I think it's time you talked to your sponsors." When the tooth comes out, it goes into her tooth fairy pillow, where it is replaced the next morning by a silly poem written by me or Tom, providing clues as to where a little gift is hiding. Instead of money, we leave something she loves more: a puzzle or book, a set of nesting dolls, an Oz playset. (Nothing says "sterile and literal" more than cold hard cash.) Despite our failure to abide by convention and tell Jade that some lady out there goes around at night collecting the bloody teeth of children for money, she is always excited to wake up and check her "tooth fairy" pillow and begin her scavenger hunt. A sterile and literal life? I think not.

//d

Will Wilkinson said...

How about the magic of Christmas, Tom!? THE MAGIC OF CHRISTMAS!!! I used to like you, Tom. Anti-Santaite! Ptooey!

Will Wilkinson said...

Oh, and if you can't lie to your own children for fun, who CAN you lie to for fun? Somebody else's children? That doesn't seem right.

Tom W. Bell said...

To you, Will, to you. Remember, "Love your blog!"? Heh.

Anonymous said...

Your family sounds so cute d! and so warm...
It makes me want to have a family of my own.
Whether parents practice Santaism or not there is no harm either way psychologists have found. There is plenty of magic with the tree, lights, presents, even without santa. Kids get excited with the hype and I think it's mainly b/c of gifts. Look at the little rascals at their b-days; they just love getting gifts above everything else.
When I was in Jr. High I started telling my mom that I wanted cash instead of gifts b/c she gave me these ugly pink or red bears that held a heart that said, "be mine" and stuff. I hated them. So ever since that time, I received cash, til this day for b-days and christmas. And one year as an adult I started thinking it was kinda sterile that I always got cash. But I got over it. ;)
sk

Marjorie said...

Awesome post -- right on! My daughter has a very active imagination, I don't do Santaism or Tooth-Fairy-ism. The difference is SHE makes up her story, not ME.

Your wife pointed me here through a comment of hers on chocolate and peanut butter. Can't wait to read more of your blog!

Murky Thoughts said...

I think you forgot what looks to me like a whopper of a parental incentive: Santaism helps to disguise what an indulgent patsy a parent is to his or her children, so that kids aren't emboldened to hit one you up for lavish gifts on the other 364 days of the year.

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Anonymous said...

I think we should just let children believe in Santa as long as they want, because somewhere down the line they will siscover that he isn't real.

Anonymous said...

Sleigh bells rock!

Anonymous said...

I encourage my child to believe in Santa and all other things magical and mystical. I'm not religious in the traditional sense, but I do have a strong sense of spiritality. I see belief in things you can't see as a natural prerequisite for having any kind of faith in a spiritual being, and Santa is the first exposure most kids have ot that. As for it being a lie - who says it is? I receive gifts every year that are marked 'from Santa' and I am over 40. Do I know for sure that my sister sends them to me? Do I know for sure that elves had no part in getting those gifts to me? Maybe, maybe not. The other day my 4 year old (whose name is Kai, which is how I foudn this website) asked me if he had magic in his bones and I told him that everyone has a little magic in them. Why is that so bad? And as for the up-side for parents - there are plenty of lopsided arrangements when it comes to raising children - just get over it. -Liz

kimo said...

my kid needs to write about show and tell for his class about the expected and favorite fift from santa