Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

The Santa Claus Lie

The exhausting and morally suspect task of lying about Santa distracts us from the best aspects of Christmas

should parents lie to their children about santa claus

Parents should stop lying to children about Santa Claus. There is no justification for lying to children about a man who lives in the North Pole and who will bring them presents on Christmas Day – presents made by elves and delivered with the help of a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, if you go with the full lie. The time, energy, and creativity that goes into supporting the Santa Clause lie should be redirected to helping very real, but less fortunate, children, adults, and animals over the Christmas holidays.

There are various arguments that attempt to justify the Santa Claus lie, but all of them fail. One argument is that lying about Santa Claus adds a magical element to Christmas. If parents did not lie about Santa Claus, Christmas would fail to be a magical time for children. I do not see why this last claim is true. Children seem to enjoy their birthday parties, and look forward to them, and look forward to getting birthday presents, without the need for a lie about a man who brings them their birthday presents. Most of the things that we look forward to over Christmas ­– the holiday from school or work, meeting up with family and friends, eating and drinking together, the exchange of gifts (other than Santa Claus presents) – do not involve telling lies. Indeed, if children were not lied to about Santa Claus, it might be that these other aspects of Christmas would become more central to the holiday.

Do children need to believe that they must leave out carrots for the reindeer, or Christmas cake for Santa, in order for Christmas to be a special occasion? Do children need to send a letter with their wish list in the mail in order to get excited about Christmas morning? I honestly do not believe that any of this is necessary for Christmas to be special. If children are moved at the thought of feeding animals, then over Christmas they can bring blankets, toys, treats, and food to animal shelters in their towns that contain very real animals. If they want to give Christmas cake to someone special, then there are plenty of charities and church organizations who will be more than happy to distribute Christmas cake, and any other food that they have, to the hungry over the holidays. As much as mailing letters with wish lists may be exciting, I suspect that children would be equally excited, if not more excited, to choose presents for other children, as part of, say, the Toys for Tots program, or the Make a Wish Foundation, and to write letters to accompany them. Christmas could be a time for children to do many things for others in need that they do not currently do, things that would make Christmas actually magical for those other people in need. As we get older, most of us find that when it comes to giving presents at Christmas, it is more fun to give presents than to receive them – and especially, to give presents to children. Allowing children to play the role of real Santas to other children and adults is a way to make Christmas magical for them, as well as for those whom they help.

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"Because the Santa Clause lie might lead to justified resentment, and warranted skepticism about parents being liars about other things, it should not be told."

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Another argument in favor of the Santa Clause lie relies on children’s lack of autonomy. Parents may lie to children, it is argued, for the good of the children. This is straightforward paternalism. Children are not autonomous adults. Their parents make all sorts of decisions for them, including decisions about where they live, what they eat, what they wear, what they read and watch, and who they play with, for their own good. Parents can therefore make the decision about what they should believe, and lie to them, for their own good. I happen to believe that it is not in the best interest of children to believe the Santa Claus lie. But even if I am wrong about this, the argument goes too far. It justifies lying to children about anything whatsoever, so long as children’s lives will be improved by believing the lie. Your child might benefit from believing that she is smarter than all other children, or that slavery never existed in the U.S. But this is not a justification for lying to her about these things. In general, lying is considered justified when it will protect people – either the people lied to, or others – from harm, and not merely when it will benefit people. Lying to people who are suffering from some form of illness, or who are in the grip of an extreme emotion, to protect them from harm, is a special case of this. Lying to children, to protect them from harm, is another special case of this, one that is considered to be even more justified than the other cases because of children’s lack of maturity. It may be that lying to children about death, or lying to children about sex, is justified, to protect them from harm. It may be that you are justified in lying to my child about how painful an operation or a drug treatment will be, or even about the fact that I am bringing her to a doctor, in order to protect her from harm. But the lie about Santa Clause does not protect children from harm, and so, it cannot be justified in that way. Children are not harmed by not believing in Santa Claus.

One rather curious argument I have come across in favor of the Santa Claus lie is that when children eventually discover that their parents have been lying to them about Santa Claus, they will no longer believe everything that their parents tell them. This is a good result, since children should be skeptical of what their parents tell them. So, parents should lie to their children about Santa Claus. There are at least two problems with this argument. First, children should realize, eventually, that their parents are not all-knowing, and that they may be honestly mistaken or even biased. For that reason, they should be skeptical, eventually, of what their parents tell them. But it is not a good thing for children to be skeptical of what their parents tell them because they believe that their parents are liars, unless their parents are lying to them about other matters, and without it being for their benefit. Second, if the only lie that parents tell their children is the Santa Claus lie, then children should not become more skeptical (in general) of what their parents tell them when they discover this lie. The Santa Claus lie is a lie told to make their lives better. This sort of lie, much like lies about surprise birthday parties, should not engender skepticism (in general) about what their parents tell them. I do know of some people who deeply resented being lied to about Santa Claus, and who were – and who perhaps still are – angry at their parents for telling them this lie. This is just silly. Their skepticism about what their parents tell them (in general), if there was any, was unwarranted. I had no such response when I discovered that there was no Santa Claus. However, if I am wrong, and if resentment is justified, and/or skepticism (in general) about what one’s parents tell one is warranted, I would give the opposite argument against the Santa Claus lie. Because the Santa Clause lie might lead to justified resentment, and warranted skepticism about parents being liars about other things, it should not be told.

A final argument in favor of the Santa Claus lie seeks to undermine its status as a lie. Since parents know that their children will eventually uncover the lie, it is just a temporary lie. Much like a joke, or a practical joke, the deception of the children is intentionally short-lived. It is a lie with a sunset clause, as it were. As soon as the children are old enough, they will be told the truth, or at least, they will discover the truth and their parents will not deny it. I take this to be the strongest argument in favor of the Santa Clause lie. Even so, it does not succeed. The Santa Claus lie lasts for an entire childhood. It is not a temporary lie. Each childhood with that lie is a childhood that could have been free from that lie.

Children seem to get along fine without believing in the existence of the Easter Bunny or Jack Frost. They will get along fine without believing in the existence of Santa Claus. Meanwhile, there is a missed opportunity for parents and children to divert their time, energy, and creativity to helping very real, but less fortunate, children, adults, and animals over the holidays.

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Nicole Braden-Johnson 21 December 2018

1) One can do charitable things around Christmas and still do the Santa thing.
2) Most parents do the Santa thing because they themselves have fun memories about it, and want to share that with their kids.
3) "Lying" is one way of interpreting it. The other is that kids will understand that Santa is a game of pretend that simply went on longer than most games. Kids play pretend all the time. They know it's not mean or a reason never to believe the "pretender" again.

By your logic I shouldn't pretend to be a dinosaur and chase my child (squealing in delight) around the house, even if that's his current most favorite thing to do.