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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run

By Dale McGowan
Excerpted from Parenting Beyond Belief

One of the questions that came up in the Austin Q&A was the Santa thing — and it’s so clearly in the air, from Friendly Atheist to Rational Moms, that I can’t even wait ’til Wednesday to chime in, because oh do I have an opinion. I threw in my two bits on pp. 87-90 of Parenting Beyond Belief, which I now offer virtually in the space below.


santa32076I4339T’S HARD TO even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with kept coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood. And a good thing, too: A middle-aged father looking mournfully up the chimbly along with his sobbing children on yet another giftless Christmas morning would be a sure candidate for a very soft room. This culturally pervasive myth is meant to be figured out, designed with an expiration date, after which consumption is universally frowned upon.

I’ll admit to having stumbled backward into the issue as a parent. My wife and I defaulted into raising our kids with the same myth we’d been raised in (I know, I know), considering it ever-so-harmless and fun. Neither of us had experienced the least trauma as kids when the jig was up. To the contrary: we both recall the heady feeling of at last being in on the secret to which so many others, including our younger siblings, were still oblivious. Ahh, the sweet, smug smell of superiority.

But as our son Connor began to exhibit the incipient inklings of Kringledoubt, it occurred to me that something powerful was going on. I began to see the Santa paradigm as an unmissable opportunity – the ultimate dry run for a developing inquiring mind.

My boy was eight years old when he started in with the classic interrogation: How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How does he get in when we don’t have a chimney and all the windows are locked and the alarm system is on? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? All those cookies in one night – his LDL cholesterol must be through the roof!

This is the moment, at the threshold of the question, that the natural inquiry of a child can be primed or choked off. With questions of belief, you have three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation – or teach the child to fish.

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic is the second choice, the debunker who simply informs the child that, yes, Santa is a big fat fraud.

“Gee,” the child can say to either of them. “Thanks. I’ll let you know if I need any more authoritative pronouncements.”

I for one chose door number three.

“Some people believe the sleigh is magic,” I said. “Does that sound right to you?” Initially, boy howdy, did it ever. He wanted to believe, and so was willing to swallow any explanation, no matter how implausible or how tentatively offered. “Some people say it isn’t literally a single night,” I once said, naughtily priming the pump for later inquiries. But little by little, the questions got tougher, and he started to answer that second part – Does that sound right to you? – a bit more agnostically.

I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself. And when at last, at the age of nine, in the snowy parking lot of the Target store, to the sound of a Salvation Army bellringer, he asked me point blank if Santa was real – I demurred, just a bit, one last time.

“What do you think?” I said.

“Well…I think all the moms and dads are Santa.” He smiled at me. “Am I right?”

I smiled back. It was the first time he’d asked me directly, and I told him he was right.

“So,” I asked, “how do you feel about that?”

He shrugged. “That’s fine. Actually, it’s good. The world kind of… I don’t know…makes sense again.”

That’s my boy. He wasn’t betrayed, he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bereft of hope. He was relieved. It reminded me of the feeling I had when at last I realized God was fictional. The world actually made sense again.

And when Connor started asking skeptical questions about God, I didn’t debunk it for him by fiat. I told him what various people believe and asked if that sounded right to him. It all rang a bell, of course. He’d been through the ultimate dry run.

By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside. A very casual line of post-Santa questioning can lead kids to recognize how completely we all can snow ourselves if the enticements are attractive enough. Such a lesson, viewed from the top of the hill after exiting a belief system under their own power, can gird kids against the best efforts of the evangelists – and far better than secondhand knowledge could ever hope to do.
_______________________
A related post from Krismas 2007
For Tom Flynn’s counterpoint to this position, see pp. 85-87 of Parenting Beyond Belief.

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This was written on Tuesday, 16. December 2008 at 08:12 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, holidays and celebrations, My kids, myths, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. I really like your ideas here and there’s just one thing that still nags at me about the Santa game: the inequality of “wonderful gifts” that Santa hands out. For a kid whose family has a decent income, the questions of why some kids don’t get good presents is merely hypothetical, another piece of evidence to weigh when they get to the figuring-it-out age.

    But what about kids from lower-income families? What happens when they very much notice that “Santa” doesn’t seem to like them as much as those other kids–as this might sink in long before they reach the figuring-it-out age? It’s certainly not as terrifying (and therefore, not as utterly-wrong-to-inflict-on-a-child) as the bad-kids-go-to-hell myth, but still, couldn’t it have negative effects during early childhood? What do you think?

    Comment: michellegalo – 16. December 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  2. You know, I remember having that exact thought as a teenager. It was long after I was done with the Santa thing, and I wondered specifically why such a thing hadn’t occurred to me when I was a Santa-believer. And there’s the thing — it didn’t. And I’ve never heard my own kids (who are let me tell you dramatically undergifted compared to their friends) make the comparison either. Though I suppose some kids do, I suspect it may be the kind of abstraction that doesn’t register as much as we adults, in retrospect, worry that it might.

    (You may all now disabuse me of that notion with your anecdotes of personal suffering over Neighbor Timmy’s remote control helicopter buzzing overheard on Christmas afternoon as you played with your ball and rusted jacks.)

    Comment: Dale – 16. December 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  3. When my son was born I wrestled with telling him about Santa or not. I didn’t want to lie to him about the whole thing, but family (including his father) were also very vocal on what they thought I should do. I decided to let them perpetuate the myth and I would just sit back and see how things played out. Because I wasn’t going to put presents under the tree which said “From: Santa” I decided to not use name tags on any of the gifts I gave. This allowed him to choose what he wanted to believe.

    He figured the whole Santa thing out last October. I think that part of the reason for this is because last year Christmas was spent at his grandparents and they took the role of Santa way overboard. He really started reasoning things out (I love to watch his mind work) and I would just ask his opinions…eventually he looked up at me and said, “Grandpa was Santa huh?”. He is so clever, and I (the atheist) never had to lie, I just let the Christians in the family do it.

    Comment: cleverusername – 16. December 2008 @ 1:20 pm

  4. I wrote this last year.
    I would have been more relaxed if I had known you way back when…
    http://www.lesliehawes.com/wordpress/?p=1044

    Comment: leslie – 16. December 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  5. One of my favorite sections in PBB! This is the plan I’ve had with my kids as well, and so far my oldest (almost 8 ) is still buying into it all, and making up her own wild stories about Santa. I just throw out a “I don’t know, what do you think?” every now and then, and she comes up with some explanation.
    I’m really ready for her to figure it out though-I hope she gets it before some other kid tells her. She’s almost there with the Easter Bunny (it’s just a grown up in a costume that brings the baskets, isn’t it?), but still strongly believes in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Bunnies can’t buy candy and fill baskets and carry them around to the homes of all children, but a big man in a suit with flying reindeer and a fairy that takes teeth and leaves money? Totally believable.

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 17. December 2008 @ 8:39 am

  6. Dale, I’ll have to admit, this is one of the issues on which I have a really hard time understanding some of my fellow freethinking parents. I just don’t see the need for a “dry run” here at all and while, ok, yes, *most* children come through the Santa myth unscathed and with happy memories, some get scarred, and we can’t always predict which ones. Not only that, but I have my doubts as to the cognitive benefits of this practice. Why would a freethinking parent try to convince their child of something untrue to start with? That doesn’t make sense to me, and doesn’t sit well with me as a mother. There is plenty to question in the world, and plenty of magic and wonder and awe, without my trying to convince my child that a fantasy is true.

    Disclaimer: I grew up sans Santa and had “magical” Christmas memories all the same, so there was no driving need, no nostalgic urge, for me to perpetrate this myth with my own kids. Perhaps my childhood traditions had been different, I’d do things differently now.

    Comment: spark – 17. December 2008 @ 10:32 am

  7. Sure, opinions are divided, and I think both sides are perfectly legit if done right. The issue can be approached terribly from all sides.

    I just don’t see the need for a “dry run” here at all

    I don’t see it as a need, but as a priceless, unparalleled opportunity.

    Why would a freethinking parent try to convince their child of something untrue to start with?

    The question is not whether I try to convince them — I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t. The myth is out there, and all parents must react to it. The question is how they do, not whether. As I noted in the piece, I see three choices: feed the child a confirmation, feed the child a disconfirmation, or teach the child to fish. Only one of those appeals to me as an active, critically-engaged process.

    (And I continue to believe the risk of “scarring” is grossly exaggerated and most likely tied to how it was done, not whether it was done.)

    Comment: Dale – 17. December 2008 @ 11:24 am

  8. I actually don’t see much of a need to react to the myth. Blue’s Clues is out there. Lord Vader is out there. The Chronicles of Narnia are out there. Harry Potter is out there. There has never been a time when I needed to either sit my child down and explain that these various characters are fictional, nor did I ever need to concoct an elaborate scheme to convince him of their reality. I just let him play with the ideas without much interference. Since I never told him Santa was a real dude, he filtered the Santa stuff in the same exact way he filtered Blue, Vader, Harry, and those awesome British children. Fantasy.

    He knew how to fish.

    Comment: jessicalbm – 17. December 2008 @ 12:59 pm

  9. There has never been a time when I needed to either sit my child down and explain that these various characters are fictional, nor did I ever need to concoct an elaborate scheme to convince him of their reality. I just let him play with the ideas without much interference.

    Yep, precisely my approach. This is the third way.

    Comment: Dale – 17. December 2008 @ 1:38 pm

  10. Ah, now after all these comments, I think I see it a bit more clearly.

    The question, then, is not, “Do you tell your kids about Santa?” but “What do you do when your kids hear about Santa, because they will hear about him?”

    Comment: michellegalo – 17. December 2008 @ 2:58 pm

  11. Yep. Same with Jesus.

    Comment: Dale – 17. December 2008 @ 3:05 pm

  12. But, aren’t many nonbelieving parents of fisher-children also removing the bait from the hook when the child isn’t looking? Aren’t they also participating in the deception (signing Santa’s name to packages and taking bites from cookies) at the same time that they’re encouraging the process of critical inquiry? If so, this doesn’t seem right to me. While I remain open to your arguments, Dale, I’m inclined to agree with spark:

    Why would a freethinking parent try to convince their child of something untrue to start with? That doesn’t make sense to me, and doesn’t sit well with me as a mother.

    Comment: boremetotears – 17. December 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  13. If you participate in the Santa myth by giving them packages from Santa and eating the cookies they put out and all that and you tell them or let them believe that it’s a factual Santa doing it, you are telling them that Santa is real.

    If you leave the subject of reality totally alone because it’s so obvious that it’s made up that it’s not even worth mentioning unless a bunch of wacky adults try to make a case for reality, kids just never see Santa as real. They never have to “figure it out” just like they never have to “figure out” that Harry Potter is fiction. They know. It’s inherent.

    Now if a bunch of wacky people do perpetuate this trick on your kids, I’d say it’s time for a serious sitdown with some boundaryless adults and then you can address it with the, “What do you think? Does that sound like it makes sense?” kinds of questions. But why anyone would intentionally induce this situation is way beyond me.

    Comment: jessicalbm – 17. December 2008 @ 11:11 pm

  14. But why anyone would intentionally induce this situation is way beyond me.

    Then I’ve failed entirely at my goal. The whole point of this essay is to explain why the myth is useful. I can see not agreeing, but if I’ve left readers baffled as to my own argument, that’s not good.

    Comment: Dale – 18. December 2008 @ 6:45 am

  15. Aren’t they also participating in the deception (signing Santa’s name to packages and taking bites from cookies) at the same time that they’re encouraging the process of critical inquiry? If so, this doesn’t seem right to me.

    I’m so glad we’re having this discussion! One of the points made in Raising Freethinkers and in the seminar needs to be made here — that our large-scale dedication to the truth is not well served by too intensive a small-scale adherence to it. We can actually make our kids less able to deal with and sort out nonsense if we raise them in a nonsense-free zone.

    I feel a full post coming on, woohoo!

    Comment: Dale – 18. December 2008 @ 7:13 am

  16. But what if he comes anyway? :)
    http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=102

    Comment: leslie – 18. December 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  17. I like to think I our home environment is a nonsense-free zone. My eldest son (5 y o) has a Santa-promoting Church of England school to provide him with more than enough nonsense.

    I look forward to the upcoming post, Dale.

    Comment: Rob A – 19. December 2008 @ 9:17 am

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  19. I’m completely down with what you’re saying about the importance of not banning nonsense from freethinking households, but I’m still having difficulty seeing the actions that many parents take to perpetuate the Santa myth in their household rates as harmless or even potentially beneficial nonsense rather than active deception. Most of the parents I know don’t incorporate Santa into their traditions as a way of fortifying the critical thinking skills of their offspring. They do it because they love the naivete of small children who are willing to believe what their elders tell them. They love the “magical” way it frames their celebrations. Then when the kids get old enough to ask questions, they don’t typically engage in logical exploration of the child’s thoughts or even playful Q&A. They shut it down, desperate to prolong the belief.

    While that might not be the way things work in your house, I don’t think critical thought and Santa typically go hand in hand in most households.

    As for nonsense, it sounds almost as if you’re assuming that parents who don’t introduce or perpetuate the Santa myth are humorless Scrooges in capable of nonsense. Come on down to Richmond and hang with us, and we’ll show you our own brand of silliness! :o)

    Comment: spark – 23. December 2008 @ 2:54 pm

  20. I started to add this to my last comment but it made a long post even longer. Resolution for 2009: learn art of brevity.

    Funny thing about all of this, is that, as you said, the “myth is out there.” My almost-6-y/o informed me about a month ago that Santa is real, a conclusion he reached based upon the testimony of classmates. A couple of days ago he declared that he was going to create a test and leave cookies out for Santa. If they were eaten in the morning, that would be proof that Santa exists.

    My husband and I did a lot of “hmmm, do you think so? why would that be? how can you tell?” and also discussed what we saw as flaws in his experimental design. We suggested some scenarios in which Santa might not exist but the cookies could still be eaten, as well as scenarios in which Santa does exist and the cookies remain uneaten. My husband then started drilling my son on demographics: “is Santa old or young? Male or female? Fit or overweight? Hmmm, an elderly overweight male, that puts him at higher risk for a stroke. You know I’m on call on Christmas Eve (true, DH is a neurologist), so if he’s real, and he’s close to here and has a stroke, I’ll get called in, and I’ll let him know that you have cookies for him.”

    Comment: spark – 23. December 2008 @ 3:14 pm

  21. As for nonsense, it sounds almost as if you’re assuming that parents who don’t introduce or perpetuate the Santa myth are humorless Scrooges in capable of nonsense.

    Please don’t do that. I have never equated opposition to myth-play with opposition to fun and silliness. They are two different things, and I know that.

    Comment: Dale – 23. December 2008 @ 5:56 pm

  22. “if he’s real, and he’s close to here and has a stroke, I’ll get called in, and I’ll let him know that you have cookies for him.”

    Oh my word, you nearly killed me with that one! HA!

    Comment: Dale – 23. December 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  23. Most of the parents I know don’t incorporate Santa into their traditions as a way of fortifying the critical thinking skills of their offspring. They do it because they love the naivete of small children who are willing to believe what their elders tell them. They love the “magical” way it frames their celebrations. [spark]

    Though I’m ready to put this to rest for yet another year :) it’s really a fascinating topic. Thanks for posting food for thought, Dale.

    Also, I just wanted to add that I’m inclined to agree (w/spark – again) that Santa seems to be more about adults, than kids (despite insistent pleas to the contrary). My new theory? If kids weren’t so darn adorable about it, the whole thing would fall apart.

    Or, maybe not. Did you see the Macy’s “Believe” TV ads this year? Eww. Maybe adults stage the whole thing for themselves, for some odd, creepy reason(s) that I don’t understand – and, can’t fathom.

    I don’t dismiss the idea that belief in Santa can lead to the development of critical – or empathetic – thinking in children; I just wonder how often that actually happens. Afterall, most children do go on to hold (irrational) religious beliefs – and intolerance for contrary views.

    Oh, just ignore me; I’m blabbing now….. :)

    Comment: boremetotears – 26. December 2008 @ 6:34 am

  24. I don’t dismiss the idea that belief in Santa can lead to the development of critical – or empathetic – thinking in children; I just wonder how often that actually happens.

    It’s all about the context around it. Few kids grow up in an environment that encourages critical thinking as a central value, so they head straight from the frying pan into the fire. In that larger critical context, I’m convinced that the Santa thing becomes pure gold — one of many effective ways to promote good thinking in the long term.

    Comment: Dale – 26. December 2008 @ 12:16 pm

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