Does the Santa Legend Endanger Trust?
by Jan Hunt
A close friend and I had an interesting discussion recently about the Santa Question.
Is it OK to tell a child that Santa Claus is real? Is this a harmless "white
lie", an innocent and loving attempt to give a child the pleasure of make-believe,
and the reassurance of fitting into our culture, or is it essentially and inescapably a
lie that can affect the child's critical capacity to trust?
|Although my son Jason was taught to believe in Santa, I worried about the eventual
outcome this might have, as I had not been told the Santa story in my own childhood. When
he asked the "Santa question" at age eight, I learned that my fears had been
correct. I can still remember his look of dismay, confusion, and sadness as I admitted as
gently as I could that Santa was, in fact, a myth. Although I then told Jason the true
story of Saint Nicholas of Patara, this did little to comfort him. I've regretted our
original decision ever since.
But how can a parent draw the line between innocent fantasy - so important in a child's
life - and an ultimately harmful lie that will inevitably have to be explained later?
Children thrive on fantasy and make-believe. They love inventive stories and fictional
characters, and readily give their stuffed animals and dolls names and unique
personalities. Fantasy and play are essential elements in a child's life. They not only
bring joy and humor, but also enhance the ability to imagine and to think "outside
the box". Imagination is a critical part of thinking and problem solving. What is the
difference, then, between healthy fantasy and deception that endangers parent-child trust?
Is there a way to keep the fantasy without the lie?
I found this puzzle to be surprisingly difficult to resolve. But after much thought I
felt that there might be a middle ground. If a child were simply told the "Santa
story" about a kindly old gentleman who leaves gifts for children in his make-believe
world, but who remains within the fictional world of the story, there would be no need to
undo the lie that he is leaving gifts for the child in our world. Parents and
children could play the "Santa game" by leaving gifts for each other, just as
Santa does in the story. This allows the opportunity for children to learn the pleasure of
giving to their parents and siblings, as well as gaining the knowledge and appreciation of
their parents' efforts on their behalf - an opportunity that is completely missed in the
||For the Santa question, and for other stories about such figures as fairies and elves,
the central question becomes: Are the characters left in their own imaginary world, or are
they claimed to be somehow magically making the transition from their world to ours? Are
they presented as fictional characters, meant to entertain or inspire, or can they
directly affect the child in some way in the real world - leaving gifts or Easter eggs, or
exchanging teeth for coins? The movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo" is a good
illustration of a fictional character magically leaving his world and breaking into the
heroine's real world. But the movie was presented as an intriguing and entertaining
fiction, not as a news story.
If fictional characters are all left within their own make-believe worlds, parents and
children could still leave surprises under the tree "like Santa does in the Santa
story", thus giving the child an opportunity to give as well as receive. The child
would still know the whimsy and joy of the Santa tale, but there would be no deception to
explain or regret later, and the child is being given authentic information about the real
world. Children need a truthful picture of their world so that they can learn to navigate
within it with confidence, knowledge and safety. Providing such an understanding is as
important a reason to avoid the Santa myth as the need to maintain the child's trust. If
we keep the magic fantasy, but hold it within the borders of the world of fiction and
storytelling, we can foster imagination and delight today without worrying about the
questions we will surely be asked tomorrow.
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers telephone counseling worldwide, with a
focus on parenting, unschooling, and personal matters. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.
|More articles by Jan Hunt