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Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run

Time once again for the annual reposting of my take on Santa, which first appeared in Parenting Beyond Belief. A lovely symmetry this year: My youngest is now eight, the age my oldest was when his Kringledoubt finally overflowed (see below). And sure enough, Delaney is currently on that same fascinating cusp between wanting to preserve belief and wanting to know.

santa32076IT’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.



This was written on Thursday, 17. December 2009 at 09:19 and was filed under holidays and celebrations, My kids, myths, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kristen Chase, Dale McGowan. Dale McGowan said: New post @ Meming of Life: Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3507 […]

    Pingback: Tweets that mention The Meming of Life » Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders -- Topsy.com – 17. December 2009 @ 9:35 am

  2. Great post. I like the way you handled that.

    Comment: TheBigBlueFrog – 17. December 2009 @ 2:07 pm

  3. First, “Kringledoubt” is going in my lexicon immediately. Second, I like the way you handled this, given that you had already started the Santa thing. You are so right about it being an opportunity for skeptical thinking and questioning authority.

    But at the same time, I can’t see starting the Santa lie in the first place. We don’t lie to our kids about important stuff, and we certainly don’t construct complex arrays of deceptive window dressing to support fibs. Santa is too easy for kids to take seriously, I think. We do other silly stuff to let our daughter question (such as hypothesizing microtigers as the source of mosquito bites – which doesn’t have a whole societal machine supporting actual starry-eyed belief).

    I’m glad you don’t have any personal experience of crushing betrayal regarding Santa, but I’m sure plenty of children do experience the revelation of the truth as a real blow. I don’t want my kid going through that, or suddenly wondering if she can really trust me.

    Comment: Cogito – 17. December 2009 @ 4:25 pm

  4. You almost make me wish we’d done Santa, lol! For some reason, I really didn’t feel right about it so we didn’t. But no worries. We did the tooth fairy. WHY I was ok with the tooth fairy but not Santa, I don’t know. I think I just didn’t like how overblown Santa is. The tooth fairy felt smaller and safer to me.

    But still it was a similar thing. Except there’s also different personalities in play with my kids. My daughter was in tears after she finally asked me if the tooth fairy was real and I told her no. So we went back to playing it up. Even now at 11 she still insists fairies are real even though she’s given up on the tooth fairy herself. I’m thinking it was good we didn’t do Santa because she probably would have been one of those kids who *does* have bad memories of being deceived. She’s still bummed about the tooth fairy.

    Her brother however, age 7, has always been a literal kid. He gets pissed off when his sister tells him imaginary things are real. Yet he still insists on the ritual of putting the tooth under the pillow and getting his coin, even though he will happily tell you his Mom is doing it.

    I do think this is a very interesting way to look at it though. It’s definitely a parallel for the god thing. Which might be part of why so many religious Christians don’t do Santa. Hmmmmm.

    Comment: Shannon – 17. December 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  5. @Cogito: Weirdly, there is actual research. A study from the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa indicates that few children are overly troubled upon learning that Santa is a myth. Fewer than 6 percent generally express feelings of “betrayal,” and the researchers posited that this often resulted from parents forcing the belief beyond its natural conclusion, which often leads the child to feel embarrassed in front of peers. A larger % feel feel “disappointment,” while the majority feel neutral or even positive.

    I also think we tie ourselves in knots by referring to all deceptions as lies. I express exaggerated joy over my kids’ ceramic pots and piano performances, and I actually encourage them to be less than honest when opening certain gifts from Grandma. It seems extreme for me to call either of these lies. Same with Santa, if it’s done with the light touch I describe. It’s fantasy play, and for me, it ends up having a larger purpose.

    But I can easily see someone feeling otherwise, and that’s cool.

    Comment: Dale – 17. December 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  6. We don’t perpetuate the Santa myth at our house (no gifts from Santa or trips to mall Santa), we treat it like religion – some people believe, some don’t, we read both mythical and historical Santa stories, and we allow our kids to draw their own conclusions.

    Interestingly, my (just) 5 year-old said to me, the other day, out of the blue, “maybe Santa doesn’t bring us presents because we have Grammie and Grampie to do that!”

    @Shannon my son just lost his first tooth and I seriously considered the Tooth Fairy, despite my aversion to Santa. Weird, yeah?

    Comment: joley – 17. December 2009 @ 4:59 pm

  7. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by MemingOfLife: New post @ Meming of Life: Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/blog/?p=3507

    Trackback: uberVU - social comments – 17. December 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  8. @joley, lol! We also do the Easter Bunny but we do that in such a goofy manner (lots of winking) that both kids think it’s funny and I don’t think they ever believed it 😉

    Comment: Shannon – 17. December 2009 @ 7:47 pm

  9. […] The Meming of Life » Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run Parenting … […]

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  10. It’s good to hear that most kids aren’t too traumatized by the Santa thing, but at the same time I still personally feel uncomfortable lying. But maybe we’re picturing different things as “lying.” IIRC, we have talked about Santa and the Tooth Fairy with much winking and nudging, and encouraged her to figure it out. It’s the parents who go to great lengths to reinforce belief that bother me a bit.

    It also causes logistical problems. Just heard a radio story where the kid asked, “But why can’t I get the [discontinued] pink DS? Santa can do ANYTHING!”

    Comment: Cogito – 18. December 2009 @ 9:58 am

  11. […] McGowan (Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers) posts on The Meming of Life blog about Santa Claus being the “ultimate dry run” for questions about God’s […]

    Pingback: Dale McGowan on the Santa Claus issue | Rationality Now – 18. December 2009 @ 11:08 am

  12. I’m totally with Dale on this one. I had one of the best conversations with my son (now 10) when he approached me with his doubts last year. After I answered him with “What do you think?” several times, he quite emphatically said, “Mom, just tell me the truth!” So we talked about Mom and Dad being the gift-providers and how the Santa Claus myth has historical roots. I told him that the spirit of giving and spending time with loved ones are the parts of Christmas that important to me. I asked him if he was okay with it, and he assured me that he was. The best part of the conversation, and the part that I will cherish forever, was when he came back to me later that day and thanked me for all the gifts he had received over the years!

    I have some friends who have kids the same age as my son, and they have approached Kringledoubt quite differently, telling the kids that if they don’t believe they won’t get presents (like that would really happen). These parents stated that they wanted the kids to believe for as long as possible for their (the parents’) enjoyment of the holiday. That approach is the wrong one, in my opinion.

    If you have young kids and you’re on the fence about Santa, I say go ahead and let them believe. But never, ever outright tell them that Santa is real, or use Santa as a good behavior motivator (we want them to be internally motivated, after all). It’s thrilling to watch their critical thinking skills develop as they figure out the truth.

    And as for me and my family, this year we’re exploring the historical underpinnings of the Christmas traditions. I recently got a video made by The History Channel called “The History of Christmas.” It has an episode titled “Christmas Unwrapped” that explains the backstory of our modern Christmas practices. There is also an episode on the biography of Santa Claus, as well as two other episodes. I got it on Amazon, and intend for it to be annual viewing, along with Ralphie and the Bumpus hounds!

    Comment: codysmom – 19. December 2009 @ 12:38 pm

  13. “It also causes logistical problems. Just heard a radio story where the kid asked, “But why can’t I get the [discontinued] pink DS? Santa can do ANYTHING!” ”

    An acquaintance of mine was stressing one year because her son still believed in Santa but had asked for a very expensive, very hard to get video game system for Christmas. She tried to tell him he might not get it and he kept saying it’s ok, SANTA will bring it! In the end her in-laws found and purchased the item for them so she was happy.

    Maybe Santa works best if you establish ground rules up front, such as, Santa buys from the same stores we do and Santa gets hit by recessions also, lol!

    Comment: Shannon – 19. December 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  14. […] Anderson’s example in the interview. This is from his blog post (and book excerpt) called Santa Claus – The Ultimate Dry Run below, but you should visit the site to read the whole […]

    Pingback: On Santa - Token Skeptic Episode One | Token Skeptic – 30. December 2009 @ 7:51 am

  15. […] I read this paper, I thought Dale McGowan’s take on Santa to be the best way to handle it. In a nutshell, he says Santa is a dry run for letting kids reason […]

    Pingback: An Alternative to the Santa Lie For Secular Parents « Morgantown Atheists – 18. May 2010 @ 6:51 am

  16. […] I read this paper, I thought Dale McGowan‘s take on Santa to be the best way to handle it. In a nutshell, he says Santa is a dry run for letting kids reason […]

    Pingback: An Alternative to the Santa Lie For Secular Parents | Heaving Dead Cats – 01. October 2011 @ 7:25 am

  17. […] Beyond Belief blog presents different angle on the whole dilemma entirely. Back in 2009 he wrote about techniques that atheist parents might use to turn Santa Claus into a teachable moment and turn a child’s […]

    Pingback: Subverting Santa and other Enlightenment Pastimes « Alien Spectacles – 20. December 2011 @ 1:49 pm

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    Pingback: Teach Your Child to Fish | – 13. December 2012 @ 5:00 pm

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