I never believed in Santa Claus.
I do know of one time when our mother took my sisters and me to one of the department store Santas when I was perhaps four years old. I even have a photo that was taken on the occasion. I recall being very afraid of the Santa and crying and not wanting to sit on his lap. But I didn’t believe he was real.
And as for Christmas presents, my parents always succumbed to my and my sisters’ pleas that we open our presents on Christmas eve, not Christmas morning. So Santa never had a role. Nor did my parents ever try to convince me of Santa’s existence. I was the youngest child in the family, and it may be that our parents had simply tired of trying to sell the Santa story by the time I was around.
But my wife and I taught our two children to believe in Santa Claus, and I’m glad we did. Here’s why.
I admit it wasn’t my idea to teach the Santa myth to our kids. After all, I never believed and I was virtually oblivious to the adult “conspiracy.” My wife was the mastermind, the architect of the plan, and I reluctantly went along. But I admit it was fun to play the game and to see how the kids dealt with it. Elves, reindeer, north pole, chimneys, cookies and milk, the works. And of course they bought into it for a time. Moreover, it was also fun to see how they eventually worked their way out of their belief.
I recall one Christmas when our daughter was convinced that Santa was coming at a certain time in the middle of the night and insisted that we wake her up so she could watch him come. We promised that we would, but then we reneged and let her sleep through the night. Christmas morning she was very angry that we had let her down. When we pointed out how difficult it would be for Santa to bring presents to everyone in just one night, she replied that of course everyone knew that Santa worked outside of the concept of time. Hmm. I think by the next Christmas she was past the myth.
Although most parents (at least in America) teach their kids to believe in Santa Claus, my guess is that most freethinking parents do not, though I don’t have any statistics on that. So why do I, an atheist, think it was a good idea to teach our kids to believe in Santa? The reason is simple. At the end of the day it teaches them a couple of very valuable lessons.
First, they learn that they shouldn’t rely blindly on the word of authority. They learn that just because their parents--their most important authority figures--tell them something is true doesn’t make it so. And hopefully they will apply that lesson in skepticism to other beliefs that are based on authority rather than objective evidence. One could argue that teaching your children the Santa myth could undermine your authority as a parent in other areas where that authority is an important parenting tool. But I think that, if handled properly, the lesson of questioning the truth of a statement that is based simply on the word of authority, is a crucial one, and the Santa myth is an ideal vehicle for teaching that lesson.
Second, the process that a child goes through in uncovering, questioning, and disbelieving the myth is important in his or her development of critical thinking skills. Everyone, let’s hope, eventually abandons belief in the physical reality of Santa Claus. And they do that through a rational analysis of the evidence and a better understanding of how the world works. Moreover, it’s fun to watch that process at work in your children as they learn to think for themselves.
If I had been taught to believe in Santa Claus, I’m not sure that I would now be able to recall the process by which I abandoned that belief. And unfortunately I was not as observant as I might have been of the process that our kids went through in relinquishing their belief. Was the process gradual or was the belief a house of cards that simply collapsed all at once? What evidence was most critical in the collapse of that belief? I would be interested in what others may recall of their experience or that of their children. I would also be interested in others’ opinions of whether or not children should be taught the Santa myth.
And, of course, there is an obvious analogy here to another elaborate myth . . . .
© 2013 John M. Phillips