Why would we want to ruin their childhood like that? Why must we squash all magic and imagination? Why can’t we just let kids be kids? Why in the world would we be uncomfortable going out of our way to convince our trusting children that Santa is a real human being who actually flies around the world in one night delivering toys to children, but only if they’ve been “good”?
The truth is that there are many reasons why a family might not try to convince their kids that Santa is real. For some people, it’s a religious issue: Their belief is that the reason for Christmas is solely Christ, and Santa isn’t needed.
My reasons are different. Before I get into them, I should probably add a disclaimer: my feelings about pretending that Santa is real are my feelings, for my family. My beliefs are not commentary on anyone else’s family; they are not a judgment of anyone else’s traditions.
I have a 7-year-old and a 20-month-old toddler, and my eldest has never believed that Santa is real. He pretends that dragons are real and fairies are all around us and one day he’s going to bring dinosaurs back to life by extracting their DNA. He doesn’t need me to create any kind of reality in which these things exist; they exist real enough in his mind.
His childhood is plenty magical. It’s magic and fun all year round, and when winter hits, we do the typical holiday family things and the stuff our community offers: Christmas craft classes, Santa’s Village, sleigh rides, hot chocolate, tour of the lights, snowmen, winter walks, snowshoeing and cross country skiing. We bake and decorate; we read books and sing songs about Christmas and Santa and elves. All sorts of good stuff.
None of our Christmas spirit has ever needed to revolve around me attempting to convince my son that Santa is real. He is free to write a letter to Santa if he wants, and to sit on Santa’s lap, although he generally politely requests to stand next to him. He receives gifts from family addressed from “Santa,” and his excitement for the holidays could rival anyone’s.
All of this, without believing that Santa is real. So why would I make this choice? Why not just do what so many other parents do, and do the work every December to convince my kids that Santa is indeed a real human being who sneaks into our house at night on Christmas Eve?
Well, because that’s a lie. It’s not true. The Santa story as it is told is a myth, not a truth.
I’ve made a commitment to myself as a parent to be honest with my kids if I am going to expect honesty in return. That means instead of lying and saying the TV is broken, I have to take the time to explain why we can’t watch Dino Trucks for the fifth time today. That means instead of concocting a story that might make my life easier, I figure out a way to tell the truth. That means when my child asks if reindeer really fly, I have to say no, because that is the truth. Reindeer can, however, run very long distances quickly, and their eyes change color depending on where they’re at in their migration. So that’s cool.
In short, I try to practice radical honesty, and that stops me from going out of my way to convince my kids that Santa is real.
It also has never felt right to me to pretend that the presents my kids get are somehow dependent upon their behavior. Along with the Santa story comes the notion that “good kids” get presents while “bad kids” might get a lump of coal, or nothing at all. But in reality, kids are good. They are.
Kids are working hard to learn our particular social customs while simultaneously dealing with a brain that is constantly changing and growing. They lack impulse control because of the development of their brain, and there’s nothing we can do to punish or threaten it out of them. When our children are learning, making mistakes and being “bad,” it is our job to patiently help them through it and model what we’d like to see from them.
Telling them that Santa is watching and he knows who’s being naughty and nice just isn’t enough. And my kids will get gifts from myself and others regardless of what phase of learning they’re in, or what mistakes they’ve made the past year. We all deserve such grace.
Another aspect is the classism implied in this part of the Santa myth. It’s palpable. The fact is that plenty of parents can’t afford to get their kids much of anything for Christmas. If the story goes that only bad kids get nothing for Christmas, what are we inherently teaching our kids about people who have less than us?
Some parents insist that it’s OK to make my kids think that Santa is real, because Santa IS real– he’s an abstract spirit of giving, and he’s alive in all of us. I usually just call that “generosity,” and we try to talk about it and live it all year round.
Thus far there is no compelling reason to treat Santa unlike any other fictional character in our lives: we can talk about him, read books about him, celebrate him, and get excited about him, but just like Bob the Builder or Lightening McQueen, the kiddos will know he’s not a real guy.
Literally, just now, with no prompting, my 7-year-old exclaimed, “What should I be most excited about?! About seeing my friends and family? About sleigh rides and skiing and snowboarding? Or Santa’s Village and hot chocolate?!” I think he’s going to be fine.
Image: Lady Dragonfly