As children, we’re taught that lying is bad and we should absolutely never do it. But as we grow up, we often land in morally gray areas: should you tell your short-tempered boss that the countless hours spent in Zoom meetings make you want to poke your eyes out or would it be better to fake a smile and quietly wait for it to be over? And should you tell your children that their presents were brought by flying reindeer and a guy in a red suit or go with the sadder truth that they were delivered by an overworked and underpaid courier? If this were a philosophy blog, we could spend hours discussing what would be the moral choice and even more hours trying to define morality. But (luckily) it’s not, so we can forget about all that stuff and focus on what really matters: what are the neurobehavioural motivations for and implications of the Santa Claus lie, both from the parents’ and the children’s perspective?
From a behavioural perspective, studies have shown that parents generally strongly promote the existence of Santa Claus in front of their children, regardless of child age (and, as we all know, the older the children get, the more elaborate the lies have to be). When questioned with respect to their motivations for encouraging this belief, parents usually report that they wish to create magic for their children and to “allow them to be kids for as long as possible”. But neuroscience suggests there might be an underlying reason: parents might also be motivated by a desire to return to the joy of childhood themselves. In line with this observation, parents also tend to describe themselves as predominantly sad when their children stop believing in Santa Claus.
When it comes to children though, the scientific literature is not so clear. Some studies describe children as having quite strong negative reactions, such as disappointment, sadness or anger upon finding out the truth, while others suggest that, even though these reactions might be present, they are usually short-lived and become quickly replaced by more positive emotions. Furthermore, because there are relatively few studies specifically on this topic, what often gets brought up as an argument against Santa Claus is more general research concerning the negative impact of parental lying on the long-term behaviour of children (which does indeed lead to increased lying and poorer psychosocial adjustment in adulthood). Based on this observation, coupled with the idea that, when someone is lied to, they become rightfully distrustful of that person, many articles jump to the conclusion that lying about Santa will ruin your kids’ lives.
“Really?”, you might think. “I believed in Santa when I was a kid and I turned out just fine.” And I agree with you. Many of us grew up with the Santa lie and we didn’t turn into pathological liars. What’s more, as parents, we are continuously choosing to let our children believe in the magic of Christmas and of Santa Claus (not because we want to make fools out of them, but because we want them to develop the same fond memories we ended up having about the winter holidays).
So in conclusion, if you want your child to believe in Santa Claus, you probably don’t have to worry about ruining their lives (but you might end up hurting their development if you constantly lie to them about other things). And when the jig is up, even though both you and your kid might feel sad about, just know that the kid will probably get over it quite fast. Now stop worrying and go wrap those presents. After all, Santa’s elves won’t do it for you.
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Encounter with reality: Children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth
Ho! Ho! Who? Parent promotion of belief in and live encounters with Santa Claus
Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood
Learning through observing: Effects of modeling truth‐ and lie‐telling on children’s honesty
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