I've long entertained a dubious regard for the practice of lying to children about the existence of Santa Claus. Parents might claim that it serves to make children's lives more magical and exciting, but as a general rule, children are adequately equipped to create fantasies of their own without their parents' intervention. The two reasons I suspect rest at the bottom line are adherence to tradition, and finding it cute to see one's children believing ridiculous things.

Personally, I considered this to be a rather indecent way to treat one's own children, and have sometimes wondered whether a large proportion of conspiracy theorists owe their origins to the realization that practically all the adults in the country really are conspiring to deceive children for no tangible benefit. However, since I began frequenting this site, I've been exposed to the alternate viewpoint that this realization may be good for developing rationalists, because it provides children with the experience of discovering that they hold beliefs which are wrong and absurd, and that they must reject them.

So, how did the Santa deception affect you personally? How do you think your life might have been different without it? If your parents didn't do it to you, what are your impressions on the experience of not being lied to when most other children are?

Also, I promise to upvote anyone who links to an easy to register for community of conspiracy theorists where they would not be averse to being asked the same question.

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It didn't affect me much at all, actually. I was about seven or eight and said to my parents "Father Christmas isn't real, is he?" and they confessed. So I'd evidently got the idea by this time that it was just a story for fun, nothing to be taken very seriously.

My daughter is three and has heard about Father Christmas at nursery. I'm wondering how to pitch him to her. I think as a story for fun would be ideal, because she's very into stories for fun that she's nevertheless quite clear are just stories. She enjoys playing along extensively with stories (e.g., her toy dinosaurs talking to her and her to them) without breaking character, but she doesn't get confused between story and reality.

(I hope to bring this approach to religion as well. Reading a picture book of the Nativity to her - she'd grabbed it in a bookshop and talked her mum into buying it for her - I asked what each thing was and she said "That's an angel. It's a sort of fairy." Can't say fairer than that!)

Edit: It may be relevant that this was in Perth, Australia, where Christmas is in the middle of summer, it's frequently forty Celsius on Christmas Day and the insane English-descended people still... (read more)

I expect your daughter to become a frightening young woman, and I mean that in the most complimentary fashion. (Also, I grew up in Florida, land of the charmingly tacky lit-up palm trees and santa-hatted plastic lawn flamingoes. I believe I was told that Santa came in through the patio if you had no chimney. As I already knew my mother was making things up, I did not press her to explain what happened if you had neither.)
She's a cross between me and Arkady. She's frightening already. We worked out by the time she was about six months old that we would have to protect the world from her, not the other way around. My goal is to help her not become the next Dark Lord. I am, of course, enormously proud of her. Teaching rationality of any sort to a three-year-old is of course quite difficult, but that she has no confusion between reality and story - and doesn't make up stories as excuses - is a pretty good start. Also, the Henson method - tell your kids ridiculous whoppers - is fun. And more fun because she gets that it's just play. When I'm supplying the voice for her toy dinosaur, it tells her things like "I'm not a dinosaur. I'm not here. I'm actually over there. Go, look, over there!" She is delighted by this sort of absurdity. I expect other children would as well, particularly in a safe environment such as playing.
Henson method? Quick Google didn't help (some artist?).
I think this method.
That's the one, thank you!
Possibly to do with the Jim Henson of puppetry fame.
Nope :-)
1Deianeira Jenkins
I had to laugh about people eating the roast dinner.  I live in NSW, Australia and we emigrated from England in the mid 80's.  Oh the cultural cringe!  Yep there would be Mum sweating in the kitchen with the turkey and all it trimmings and usually complaining.
huh, I'm confused why the roast dinner specifically sticks out – I get why the rest of the Christmas aesthetic doesn't make sense but that part... just seems reasonable to me? (I guess I have a background assumption that eating oddly specific food for holidays is normal)

My earliest memories of the Santa story involve me deceiving my parents into thinking I believed it. In all the Christmas movies and stories of the time, the Santa-skeptic kids were always bad guys, and the true-believers were depicted as innocent and good. I picked up on the social norm of "naive child=good, skeptical child=bad" pretty quickly.

I got the strong impression that my older siblings were playing along as well. I never actually asked them, though.

I'm not thrilled about the societal emphasis on gifts to make children happy, but otherwise, as a parent of two young kids, I am grateful for Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is a perfect, uncomplicated person that also loves your children. I think it's a good thing to give children the impression that love for them extends beyond the family; someone out there with power, resources and magic also loves them, personally. The gift they get from Santa is the 'evidence' of this love and this gift is usually the best gift they receive -- more carefully chosen and grander than even the gifts their parents give them. I view the phenomenon of Santa Claus as an outlet for society to express their views and hopes about generosity. Santa Claus is a model of what it means to be generous, and we all feel more generous when we channel his personality to pretend that his is real. Possibly, we teach our kids to be generous for later. (Sometimes people are generous when they've been generously treated, and sometimes they feel entitled instead, I don't know why.)

I don't see it as a deception about whether Santa Claus 'exists'-- for the first time on the other side of the conspiracy, I'm amazed by how exten... (read more)

Thanks for the thoughtful answer. Those are good explanations why people want to do it - but I could use those same arguments to justify teaching children religion.
While I think the themes of religion are much more problematic, I cannot argue in good faith as we recently made the decision to not interfere with the religious education my kids are being taught at school. I think this is a moderate, 'when in Rome' position. (If anyone wishes to discuss this further, I can list our pragmatic reasons and share some boundaries and plans we've developed for their long-term sanity and well-being.)
Yes, I would be interested. I'm planning on having kids in about a year and very conflicted about the line between protecting them from nonsense and brainwashing them.
My comments, this one and the one below, explain why it took me so long to respond and why my first few drafts didn't work. I'm sorry for the bloggy/confessional tone. Things were less sorted out than I thought. I think that whatever you do, you teach your children a culture; including your attitudes about information, edges of information and independent thinking. This happens on a daily basis, with everything you do, so I don't think it matters so much what you tell them at the object level. In other words, you can tell them what you think about things and trust that they will keep thinking about it on their own terms (and not be brainwashed) if not being brainwashed is something that you value. Religion wasn't much of an issue until my daughter was about 5 or so. It just didn't come up. My social experience with religion is that most people are religious and some people are not-so, and no one really cares except for the occasional religious aunt that everyone teases for being a fanatic because she gets all worked up at gatherings with the cynicism of the undeclared atheists. With children in the family, this changes somewhat. I think this is because children are socialized by the whole community, not just the parents. You can strive for independence, but it's kind of difficult to avoid completely (e.g., playground rules) and I think it can be very comforting to have the help. (Especially from other parents that may be more experienced, insightful or patient than you are feeling at the moment.) All this to explain that my daughter spends a lot of time with her cousins. Since they are being socialized to be good little believers, they try to socialize my daughter with these new rules they are learning. (It is somewhat competitive, to see if my daughter is learning these Very Important Things. My daughter just has to take the status hit of not having known these things, but she is younger so it just one instance of many.) Regarding these Very Important Things,
I'm shameless when it comes to securing a good education for my kid. When looking for day cares, I was on several waiting lists at the same time and on my way to work I would alternate stopping at the different places to tell them I couldn't wait to bring my kid there while I surreptitiously spied on them. So it didn't seem like that big a deal to join the parish of the Catholic school I want my daughter to go to. According to the admissions lady (who also seemed rather shameless in her matter-of-factness about the facts of admission), I should start actually attending the church (how did she know I didn't?) and tithing some small amount, to be increased substantially once admission occurs. (But the total tuition decreases, so.) So last Sunday I went to church and brought the family, sans husband (who would not deign, even though he certainly won't want the job of carpooling across town to the next best school). I learned an amazing thing. All of my daughter's friends were there and it was a HUGE social event for her. Really? Church? Important background information is that we had a birthday party a month ago and other than family, only one friend from school came. During the doughnuts and coffee hug-all-your-theist-friends-time, we secured a cookie decorating play date invitation at someone's house for the first time. So this is what I've been depriving my daughter of? And I was going to send her to this school, clueless, friendless? I'm afraid -- I fear --that her religious education is about to begin in earnest. I want her to fit in. I think it would be unfair to send her to a school where she's going to be weird. I'll just hide my cards, that as soon as she's ready I'll let her know she doesn't have to believe any of it if she doesn't want to. With me, she can absorb and reflect as much detached irony as she wants to, or be completely sincere about her religious beliefs if that's what feels right with her friends. Wow, what a turn-coat I've turned out to be
I went to Catholic grade school from Pre-K through 5th grade. This was a mistake, but only because the local public schools were of an extremely high quality and I probably could have gotten the same, or better education for free. I assume that isn't the case for you though. As it stands I don't feel like the Catholic religious education hindered me intellectually- at least where I attended they didn't actually try to give us evidence or arguments for why God existed: they just taught us what we were supposed to do. Stand, kneel, stand, kneel, sit, kneel, stand. Don't use God's name in vain. I did First Communion and First Confession. Don't hit people or talk during class. I was very good at all of it. (I guess because I was such a good kid compared to my classmates I was pretty sure I was going to be canonized. I did think I might be like St. John and have the power to stare into the sun- which was almost certainly a risky thing to believe... end digression) I don't know if I wasn't 'talking' to God enough or what, but as soon as someone presented me with the option of not believing in God I became an agnostic. I suspect if you instill her with rational, scientific values in addition to what she gets at school the Catholic thing won't stick. But keep in mind that I got out just before 6th grade. I'm not sure how things would have proceeded had I stayed. I don't know what exactly the Catholic church teaches adolescent girls but it can't possibly be that healthy so you may have to work to counteract that. I left because the small class size became a negative-- there were only 6 other boys and after my less popular friend left I was at the bottom of the pecking order. As for the weekly mass, keep in mind that Bible verses are pretty much impenetrable to kids (at least they were for me). The only part of Mass I could understand was the Homily- and even then I usually drifted off. Most of religion class consisted of memorizing prayers and stories- Adam and Eve, Noah,
An atheist friend's younger sister is being drawn into a Christian youth-group for this exact reason. I felt conflicted because on epistemic grounds, believing whatever makes you friends isn't a procedure for making truthful beliefs, but on consequentialist grounds I advised him not to talk her out of it, because her expected loss from believing in God did not outweigh the expected gain of a greatly increased social life. This sounded to him like "believing in God is good because you get friends", which I agreed earlier was not a good reason to believe in God. I retracted my advice in confusion. It really is a tough question. Which bastard attached social consequences to epistemic concerns?
Don't miss out on youth-group just because they might teach you about God. At least, don't if they are anything like the youth groups I used to engage in. It is amazing how much fun you can have once you eliminate consuming alcohol as a source of entertainment. For example, you can take the alcohol, pour it on a rag covered ball, ignite it and play some soccer in the paddock. Just go easy on the headbutting.
Consuming alcohol isn't the source of entertainment per se; consuming alcohol near members of the desirable sex who are also consuming alcohol is lead-up to the source of enjoyment. I am given to understand that this is not an option within the rules she has picked up from youth group; she has a boyfriend from said group, and they have publicly agreed to stay off third base until they are married.
Ewww. Now that is something you definitely don't want to catch.
Why is "believing in God" a component of "going to youth group"? It's a social outing. You're right that it's worth running the risk of conversion to Christianity in order to get friends; he's wrong in declaring that hanging out with Christians is dangerous.
It is not always the case, but it most definitely is the case in this specific situation. She is noticeably converting to belief in Christianity (and not belief in belief or belief in sports teams, as far as I can test). Then, I was arguing it's worth converting to Christianity in order to get friends. Which I do believe is the case for this particular young girl; I just ran into my deontological rule "don't convert to Christianity" while discussing it.
It helped put my sister into a really terrible Born-Again phase. She was even telling me about Satanic messages backward-masked in records. She got over it, but her husband's mother is an evangelical preacher (to a degree that disconcerts even other Born-Agains) and has inflicted Christian rock on their daughter. (That said, the husband is remarkably stoic and his mother has turned him into a passive-resistance agnostic.) So, er, yeah: if you drop someone into an environment calculated to inculcate them with toxic memes, it might turn out to be as influential upon their thinking as it explicitly intends to be.
I am the son of a pastor, by the way. The issue may be what youth groups one goes to; not all of them are that virulently designed. The best argument for Christianity is happy Christians and unhappy atheists; the best counterargument to that is not unhappier Christians but happier atheists. If you (and your children) already have what the youth group is selling, the danger should be seriously reduced.
I really don't consider "only contains a small amount of virulent disease, you'll hardly notice!" enough to make it seem in almost any way a good idea. I'm not entirely pleased my daughter's likely to go to the local C of E primary, but the alternatives were completely woeful state sink schools or a Catholic school. I believe I declared "There is NO FUCKING WAY I am throwing her to the Catholics." She'd get an education, but I consider it appalling abuse to subject a small child to that emotional environment. I would home-school her first, and I have some idea how much work that would be.
No kidding. BTW, it's been a while since I did any actual academic reading on the topic, but I came away with the distinct impression that the quality of the school didn't matter even a small bit as much as how much effort the student/family put into it. My own stint in a Catholic highschool reinforced this impression - for most of the kids there, it was just a big money & time sink (long commutes from all around, my own was roughly 3 hours a day). I strongly suspect that there are greater marginal returns for your daughter in other strategies like buying lots of relevant books, prodding her to use effective study strategies like spaced repetition, or a foreign exchange program. (Actually, I think foreign exchange programs are fantastic for highschoolers.) There are a few ways she can make this inference. She never sees you there herself; your name is not on the tithing roster (loyal parishioners sign up to get customized envelopes for their checks; I imagine names on envelope-less checks are also recorded*); none of the other moms talk about you; lack of documentation like baptismal certificates; and so on. Practically speaking, once you're in, it doesn't much matter how much you tithe. Catholic highschools as far as I can tell operate much like public ones inasmuch as you have to do badly academically or screw up before they will actually expell you or not let you return the next year (same thing). You should also ask whether your parish has a Catholic highschool scholarship. Mine did, and it helped a lot. (However, mere regular mass attendance is definitely not enough for a scholarship; they go to the kids who participate in a lot of church activities, unsurprisingly.) Yup! This should perhaps not surprise you; you must have read of communities in the Midwest or the South where the church is the focus of an entire web of small groups and organizations and social connections, and teenagers need that sort of thing just as much. Depends on the church, of cour
How does it go again? "Yes, it's true. Not undermining the teacher's authority and credibility, independent of the actual quality of their teaching is Very Important to you." I think you are quite possibly making a good decision. I guess it depends what path you want your children to develop along, the degree of insanity to which they are exposed and the nature of their innate psychological makeup.
My husband and I are very much of the opinion that getting along in society and modern civilization is a game. And then there are things we care about, too. Regarding the quality of the teaching, there's a few things I would criticize about the quality of the teaching before her belief in angels! Given that this particular teacher and this particular school represent an optimal location in our set of possibilities, undermining the teacher's authority would most likely lead to behavior I don't want, like distrust and hostility. The teacher needs an environment with which to teach empathy, letters and shapes at this age. The religious training seems like a small thing?
Unless, of course, the children learned to differentiate 'respect' of the social kind (the only important part for social success at school) from respect of the kind where actual merit is relevant. This is an invaluable lesson in its own right. (By my observation the social necessity of showing respect to an authority figure may actually have an inverse correlation with their merit - unless you actually wish to challenge them.) Again, this isn't a criticism of your decision, which I think is a practical one. Just a consideration some need to account for depending on psychological makeup of their children. Utterly trivial. Makes almost no difference. :) This is actually a case where The Santa Deception may actually be a good thing. One approach I may consider would be to teach my kids the necessary religion myself, actively. I'd tell them all the right religious stories, and intersperse those stories with fairy tales and stories of Santa. All in the same tone and cheery enthusiasm. I can still ace the religious questions when I go along to trivia nights at church with my Christian friends. There is no reason my kids can't too. :)
Up-voted for this: Sometimes I get into trouble with this, and have to explain to somebody whom I respect that I didn't show them as much respect as I showed another because I actually respect them more (and probably actually respected them too much, but I don't say that). Mostly this is not authority figures, however.
It seems easier to repair religious damage than social damage, but I am not an expert in child development.

I had my suspicions about Santa pretty early--as a too-curious preschooler snooping in my parents' bedroom, I found boxes for some gifts that had been "from Santa"; my mother had made up some story explaining it. Later (6 or 7 years old?) I found a page stuffed into a drawer that had been ripped out of a book--it explained how to tell your kids that Santa wasn't real. I read all of the books on the shelf at home, including the parenting book; that was the bit of knowledge my parents wanted to hide from me! (I suppose they thought I would be too young to understand some of the other stuff I'd find, but that I would understand that if I found it. My parents really had no idea how to deal with a young voracious reader.)

So I knew that Santa wasn't real but that my parents (my mother, really) cared that I not find out. I don't think Santa in particular affected me much in part because I was a voracious reader--I knew a lot of things that were different than what my parents told me, and I also knew that most parents were advised that kids might not be ready to know them. (Like I said, I read their parenting book.)

Knowing that I couldn't trust my parents to tell me the truth ab... (read more)

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Shades of what happened when I found the secret hidden volume of my beloved Childcraft set, the "Guide to Parents"! Only in my case, that's how I found out what teenagers were supposed to be like and that's when I decided never to go there.
I read similar books when I was a kid, but my parents never tried to keep them secret from me. I don't think they ever saw my reading about parenting or child development as something to be worried about, and they were aware of my commitment never to go through all the troubles of a typical teenager. Unsurprisingly, I found my own ways to be difficult.

My parents not only pulled the Santa deception, they used a service whereby an actor in a costume would come and deliver their presents as an intermediary. This left me with a longer lasting, but much less absurd version of the Santa myth; I knew that the stuff about flying around in a sleigh and climbing down chimneys had to be wrong, but I didn't see anything wrong with the basic idea. I never thought about theb scale involved, but if I had, I probably would've concluded that "Santa" was a role, not a person, and that there was someone in that role for each participating community.

jimrandomh's mom here. That's not exactly right. It's a town wide program, all volunteer. Parents drop off gifts at a central location on a set day. Routes are planned, each with a driver and a volunteer. The gifts are delivered on Christmas Eve. Santa comes and rings the doorbell and comes in, often posing for photos. I'm pretty sure we only did it once, when he was 4 or 5, but it made a lasting impression, he knew that Santa came to the house and was not his dad, as his dad was right there.

Upvoted for sheer weight of online pwnage. This is worse than when both my mothers discovered my LiveJournal.

p.s. Are you someone who my son has met live or just an online friend?
No, just here :-)
Which leads to the interesting question, what do we mean by 'here'? Can't be very much like the normal usage...
David Gerard is a well-known UK Wikipedian, and I have the impression jimrandomh is American, so probably the latter.
Thanks. Yes, jimrandomh is definitely American, so unless David came to one of the Singularity Institute's conferences and met him there, they wouldn't have met.
Not really. He told me about the board. When I told him I looked at his posts occasionally, he suggested I register and post myself. Then, when I told him that his post about our town's Santa program was slightly inaccurate, he said I could clarify it if I wanted to. I pointed out that I'd have to reveal my identity and he didn't have a problem with it!
I really must say, your name is hilarious.
You must misunderstand why my name is "playtherapist"- which is understandable. I really am a playtherapist. I do therapy with children, using play. I get paid for playing with doll houses, sand trays, play dough, action figures, etc. with troubled little children. I help them to work out their anxiety, anger, feelings of loss, etc. using play.
With unfortunate implications, if spaces are incorrectly added.
A Teaching Assistant from one of Fubar's schools? Infidel!

I do not remember believing in Santa or when I stopped. But I do remember the game of everyone pretending there was a Santa and a Tooth Fairy and an Easter Bunny. It was great fun and I had no feeling that I was lied to by my parents or others. When I realized that God was not in this group and I was actually supposed to believe in that being was when my problems with pretense really began. I started to notice how others, by their actions etc., displayed a lack of believe in what they said about God, but they insisted that it was important to believe. End of innocence, now I was being lied to!

I always questioned the existence of Grandfather Frost (the Russian equivalent of Santa). It didn't make sense to me that someone could break into so many tightly locked apartments all in a single day, and leave no traces of it.

To that end, I tried to stay awake on New Year nights and see for myself how he does it. This required my parents to jump through hoops, like carrying me to a different room "for my own good", to preserve the illusion. The turning point was when I peeked into my parents' closet and saw gifts that Grandfather Frost was supposed to give me. I still wish they just told me the truth from the get go, and I'm annoyed that they're bent on doing the same thing with my brother, who lacks my capacity for critical thinking.

Strangely, I stopped believing in God long before that, and before I knew it was called atheism.

7Eliezer Yudkowsky
Upvoted for catching on to the nonexistence of God before you figured out Santa Claus. I think that's the first time I've heard that one.
To my deep chagrin, while I became an atheist around 5 or 6, I don't think it was until 7 or so that I really gave up on Santa. I say chagrin because really, even my books were telling me there was no real Santa which they certainly weren't doing with God, yet still...
Reflecting in hindsight, it could have happened because I saw less evidence for God than for the Santa-equivalent. Intuitively, I could have preferred the simpler explanation "Grandfather Frost exists", even thought it included unknowns such as the question how exactly he could leave presents everywhere at once and leave no trace of breaking in, rather than believing a conspiracy theory. With God, on the other hand, I had no reason to hold that belief other than the words of the Bible and religious people like my great-grandmother, and I already saw that they were wrong on many other accounts.
I would suspect it might have more to do with living in a country that was an atheist state until 20 years ago.
That may be true, but from my experience, most people's opinions on the existence of God here are "meh, maybe, maybe not" (which by itself is enough to make Russia one of the most non-theistic nations on the planet), while I went strictly from "God exists" to "God does not exist".

I... I don't even... he Photoshopped the evidence into their actual hiking expedition... but... look, how far does this have to go before your kids are justified in wondering whether the world around them was created by you for the sole purpose of deceiving them?

I know, and come on, just how stupid are those kids if they believe that? I mean everyone knows that Ewoks live on the forest moon of Endor. And that's in a galaxy far, far away. Not only that it was a long time ago. They didn't occupy a stable evolutionary niche so the species as we know it wouldn't even exist now. If the kids believe they see Ewoks that must mean that they haven't been taught about evolution. What sort of parent would do that to their children?
Seeing that normal parents deceive should be enough. The more parents deviate from the norm, the more control they have over the weird content.
Deception of children for the purpose challenging them to spot the inconstancy is common practice in my experience. In this case though the inferential distance seems like it would be way to large to overcome with out additional evidence. The additional evidence is often the parent taking on a different tone of voice and method of reasoning while presenting faked evidence. Which makes it hard to tell if the parent is going too far in this example. If the purpose of this system is what it does, POSIWID, then this tradition of deceiving often trains children to look for verification of presented evidence, trains them not to take one data point too seriously, as well as to not always to take what is said at face value no matter who says it. Ideally the deception would be just the right inferential distance to stretch the child maximally while still being able to overcome it. Some people are bound to participate in the tradition with out understanding its purpose and achieve ill results. As is with participating in any tradition with out understanding what its results commonly are.

I have no clear memories of the Santa deception bar two:

We left a carrot out for the reindeer (along with a beer for Santa, which should have been a dead giveaway, really) and it was only half-eaten the next morning. Having been recently caught lying, I had figured out vaguely that the liar's reaction to false accusations is denial, and the truthful person's reaction is confusion. I wish I could say some spirit of rationality possessed me to check if my parents were lying about Santa, but it was merely me trying to catch my parents in a lie because they had scolded me for lying previously. I remember asking if they didn't like eating raw carrots, expecting denial or confusion, and being surprised when they smiled and owned up to the whole Santa lie.

The other was going to Religious Education at about age 6, hearing about God, applying my Santa-discovering skills, and being frustrated when the RE teacher refused to own up to the lie.


I've said before that I think I care about the truth more than other people because a parent lied to me- but I don't think the Santa lie was the traumatizing one.

I slowly gathered more evidence there was no Santa year by year. Once my Aunt thanked my mother for something that had a "From Santa" label. We had a tradition of calling Santa to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, Santa being my mother's older brother the actor. I recall my belief diminishing when I realized none of my classmates were talking to Santa on the phone. And then there was the fact that my brother and I began to hunt and find the hidden presents- presents we assumed would be put under the tree as "From Mom" but a few ended up coming from Santa Claus and that pretty much gave it away.

The Tooth Fairy was the first myth I realized was false- figuring this out was easy. Like the fifth tooth I lost I didn't tell anyone and put it under my pillow. I woke up the next day and it was still there. Then I told my parents and the next night, found money. I then pretended I still believed in the Tooth Fairy until the rest of my teeth came out.

Maybe there is a rationalist case for these lies. There ... (read more)

That sounds like something I'd want to do for my kids (provided I have any,) but what if instead of discovering it through their own reasoning or investigative abilities, they hear it from someone else, and come begging you to reassure them that it's not true?
I think if they wanted reassurance I'd tell them to figure it out for themselves, and possibly use it to teach them the concept behind the Litany of Tarski. How much that would work would depend on how old they are. After they realized it wasn't true and accepted that, I'd take them out to dinner.
I'm impressed and envious- that attitude, rather than any amount of memorized facts, is the sign of a scientific prodigy.
Unfortunately this attitude is how you get tenure. But in humility I think my teeth started coming out a fair bit later than most children's do. And I don't know how conscious I was of what I was doing. I'm not sure the thought process was as complicated as "I know, I'll keep it a secret from my parents, who I suspect of being the tooth fairy, and if there is no money I'll see what happens if I do tell them." It may just have been hard to get excited about announcing I lost another tooth after already having done it 4 times before.
I've had similar thoughts (I have two small children, so I'm super interested in ideas about education), but on reflection, I think this would be a bad idea. It took the greatest minds of prior generations entire lifetimes to come up with the breakthroughs in science and mathematics that current work is building upon. It would be unrealistic and counterproductive to expect a child to independently replicate the invention of the zero, Mendelian inheritance, Newtonian physics, etc. Even if they were given a lot of hints. Instead, what I'd like to do with my kids is to put the advancement of human knowledge firmly into its historical and cultural context. So instead of "this is geometry, now memorize the Pythagorean theorem," we would study the architecture and building methods of the ancient Greeks, learn about the problems that Pythagoras had to solve, learn about the alternate methods and theories that existed at the time, learn about his advancements and insight right along with his crazy numerology and religion, and then learn about how subsequent mathematicians sorted out his important discoveries from his wacky personal beliefs. So it would be not just "this is geometry," but "this is geometry, this is why and how geometry was developed, these are some false ideas that were initially part of geometry, this is how the truth was winnowed out, and these are the problems that have yet to be solved." The idea being to teach the process of discovery along with the discoveries themselves.
That sounds like a good educational process, but once they have some grounding in that, I think it would be good to move on to not telling them the right answers, but presenting them with a number of propositions, and telling them "These are the possibilities that were raised at the time. Can you work out which is actually correct, and how they figured it out?"

Unfortunately my memory of this has faded. I know I had broken the charade by 6 or 7, but I can't recall my thoughts about it at the time. I recall playing along with it for rather Pascal's wager type reasons (more downside to risking the presents).

I take my poor memory of it as implying that it seemed less of a big deal to me. Same goes with the tooth fairy and Easter bunny. In comparison, unraveling the God story had a much longer and more significant timeline. Although the seeds of that were planted about the time of Santa's destruction I can't recall how the two are intertwined.

I would be surprised if the consensus here was that the story of Santa is a good parenting practice. We have a status quo bias potential here, so turn it around. If there was no such thing as Santa currently, would it be a good idea to invent him?

Or to further abstract it from reality, make up a whole bunch of stories. Would a child be better off with a pantheon of artificial creatures that want us to behave in certain ways? How about magical elves that make sure your schoolbus doesn't crash if you brush your teeth every night, or crows that poop in your milk carton if you tell a lie to a teacher. Seems all bad to me. There's enough challenge dealing with reality and our psychological bugs (like thinking that it's quite plausible that a crow pooped in your milk because you are an unlucky or bad person).

The reason why the reversal test so often defeats status-quo bias is that the defender of the status-quo inevitably thinks that we currently have just the right level of whatever (they don't want it to move in either direction) and therefore has to provide some plasible mechanism as to how we arrived at a local optimum.

However here there is an obvious such mechanism, society just added fictions until parents decided we had enough. Note that there are several such fables: the Tooth Fairy, the Bogeyman, the Easter Bunny, and the various superstitions people often teach to children, such as not stepping on the cracks in the pavement.

However, were the parents optimizing for what it is we'd actually want them to optimize for regarding that?
Yes I can imagine someone defusing my challenge that way. Good point. I'll get you yet Santa Claus!
So what if we removed all such fable stories (in the sense that we allow our kids to believe them)? Would it be a good idea to add them back into society?
I am enough of a consequentialist to be reluctant to answer ethical questions about counterfactuals so different from reality that they destabilize my intuitions about likely consequences. This strikes me as such a counterfactual: not only can I not imagine any way of removing such "fable stories" in the first place, I can't imagine any way of preventing humans from creating a new set of myths.. at least, not without altering human social cognition in sufficiently major ways that the removal of fable stories became inconsequential by comparison. I'd be convinced otherwise by a credible account of a culture that had no such stories, though. So all I can really say is, it would be a good idea to add them back in if doing so made life better for people, and not otherwise, and I have no idea which would be the case. I infer from the question, perhaps incorrectly, that you have a firmer ethical belief about this than I. If I'm right: is that because you have a clearer belief about the likely consequences (if so, I'm interested in your model), or because you're a deontologist on the matter, or for some other reason?
I was honestly just curious to hear you expand on the topic. I don't have an answer that's better than yours. Thank you.
Some adults specifically told me not to say that I didn't believe in Santa, because if I didn't believe, I wouldn't get presents.

Same. Not my parents, but parents of other children who had discussed Santa with me. That would have been those kids' first introduction to motivated cognition - "You must be wrong, or else I won't get presents!" and "I don't care if you're right and I'm wrong, as long as I believe anyway, I get presents!".

The Santa deception as a whole might be neutral, but don't let anybody get away with saying "presents iff you believe". That aspect is irredeemably evil.

Yet also a valuable lesson in status, signalling and courtiership. Human behavior is evil like that. DHTP;HTG.
I am of the mind that status, signalling, courtiership, and most other sociocultural systems like them should be taught as game rules, to be played as a game, and to be gamed if at all possible. Threats like "believe or we'll take away your presents" should be introduced only on the explicit understanding that it's part of a game, and only then should the children be taught that most people don't know they're playing a game, and even more consider that failing to pretend it's real is an infraction punishable under the rules of the game. Otherwise you run the risk of actually believing that belief gets you presents, and you run the risk of suffering real emotional damage and responding badly when someone steals your status.
Most people are able to learn social rules without having things declared explicitly. Yes, it sucks for those of us who learn best when they understand what is going on abstractly. We would get a massive advantages if we could get everything declared explicitly. Yet there are others who actually learn these things better when the game isn't made open. They can maintain the whole internal plausible deniability thing. Is the act of the parents - that of going along with cultural norms of faux-deceit - still evil if it actually makes their children better able to succeed socially? Where does the 'evil' lie? In what the parents do, the DNA of humanity or maybe even in the abstract nature of competition?
Yes. Other-optimising and deliberately changing someone's map so that it doesn't reflect the territory are hard to make a case for. "Cultural norms" is not such a case. I am not convinced there are people who actually learn how to play better when they don't know the rules of the game.
Assuming your position holds given the language I used as well as with your framing then we have an unambiguous disagreement in matter of fact. If you see things the way they actually are you have to lie. People are just not that good at double talk. I will not begrudge those who work best at navigating a world of bullshit by immersing themselves in it the opportunity to play to their strengths.
I am pretty sure we do disagree. Just to be sure, I don't hold that nobody can learn how to function well in society without the rules being made explicit; but that everyone would do better when given the rules to interpret the experience as a game.
We do. Ironically I consider your position just one more ideal that can be helpful to believe for game purposes despite being inaccurate.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky
...isn't that just what we want to train the kids to spot, though?
Before they've even figured out that beliefs can be wrong? I say parents teach them that beliefs can be wrong with Santa, and teach them that desperate desire to believe is not truth with God. In a perfect world (and the way I would like to raise my kids) it would be the other way around, because God is more obviously wrong than Santa (Santa might break the rules of physics, but he gives you presents; God breaks the rules and does nothing), and Santa actually rewards belief where God doesn't. So I would introduce them to the God hypothesis, let them test prayer, and decide that beliefs can be wrong. Then try them out on Santa, see if they can find the truth despite being offered presents to believe a falsity. But the important distinction, the critical distinction, is teaching them. When you teach them about motivated cognition, they've got to have the option of getting it right. If a parent withholds presents from a child because they refuse to believe in Santa, and Christmas comes and goes, and the child sees all their friends with presents and they have none themselves, next year they will lie for presents. Social pressure, parental pressure, just wins at that age. Kids usually start deconverting themselves later than single digits.
Wow, that is extremely cruel.
I was 8 or 9 and angrily demanded to know whether it was true or not. My mother found the experience uncomfortable, because I was suggesting I'd be devastated if I found out I'd been lied to all these years but wanted to know the truth. She tried to suggest it wasn't lying, just a story, but to me it was black and white. My Grandma once tried to suggest that I would only get presents if I believed in God, at a time when my sister was going through a theistic phase, because that was the reason for the celebration, the implication being that my sister should get presents and I shouldn't. I think at the time I found this blatant and ridiculous.

Personally I would have no problem with not bringing up my children with a belief in Santa, but I would worry about how this would affect my and my family's status. What if my kids told other children that Santa didn't exist? Would they be upset? What would their parents think?

It would be valuable training in the fact that everyone else in the world is crazy.

I'm still wondering how to deal with the possibility of my daughter assuming something is just a fun play-along story (Tooth Fairy, Father Christmas, Jesus, the Liberal Democrats) and then encountering a playmate who doesn't know it's a story. The fallout should be interesting, at least. I am torn as to how to tell her when it's rude to take away people's erroneous beliefs. Edit: Oh Dawkins, she's likely to go to the local Church of England primary school. (My girlfriend is an active member of said church.) [All the other local primaries are Catholic, dismal failures or both.] This will be tons of fun for everyone, I'm sure (he said with trepidation). The vicar could out-argue a six year old; I'm really not sure about many of the church members, however.
I've read this twice now (the bold ‘Edit’ made me check again), and each time I first read it as a claim that the vicar is a good debater. (Man, he could out-argue a six-year-old!) Then I think again.
:-) It was a statement about the other members of the church (who I suspect couldn't), not about the vicar (who is smart and knowledgeable and an excellent fellow).
Are you saying that it's hard to find a secular school in England? (shock) I was born in Soviet Russia and kind of used to the opposite
Oh no, there's always a secular school around. It's usually unbelievably terrible, at least in poor areas like this.

I remember my mother being angry when I said that Santa Claus was not true.

this realization may be good for developing rationalists, because it provides children with the experience of realizing that they hold beliefs which are wrong and absurd, and that they must reject them.

If parents reacted not with anger or disappointment, but with congratulations ("Well done! You passed the test! You've leveled up!"), this might have positive effects. I'm still mildly opposed to the deception though. Analogously: it may, occasionally, be optimal to hurt someone for their own good, but one should be extremely careful about that kind of action and very suspicious of one's own motives; we should be similarly careful with sabotaging another's map.

I was raised an Orthodox Jew, which made Santa Claus rather a moot point, but provided me with any number of other mythical narratives presented as actualities. And I was raised a middle-class American, which provided me (and continues to provide me) with other myths presented as fact.

No particular myth was, as far as I can tell, especially fundamental in the sense of "If I hadn't been exposed to that myth, but everything else had remained the same, it would have all been different."

Of course, it's hard to know for sure.

OTOH, had I been raised in... (read more)

I don't remember believing in Santa Claus. It was always a game to be played with grown-ups.

My experience of other children believing in Santa was very much one of them not quite realising it was a game, and my not wanting to spoil their fun.

Conversely, I did and still do believe in God, though again I have no memory of believing in the old man on a cloud version often given to children.

Upvoted and quoted for irony. I cannot determine whether it was intentional or not, which makes it all the finer. Excellent post.
1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg)
Likewise. I love hearing about how other people understand the concept of God, considering it's not something I was raised with (I was agnostic/atheist from early childhood until about 17, a theist for maybe 6 months, and now agnostic again but a lot more curious about the roots of religion and faith.) You can send me a private message if you don't want to write it all here.
...What is your personal definition of God, given you claim to avoid an anthropomorphic version? One of deism? "Love"? I'm very curious. Not trying to mock, this is a genuine question.

As a Muslim with a weak grasp on the difference between fiction and reality, I was a bit weird about Christmas. Santa Claus definitely didn't deliver to us, and my parents never made a big deal of buying me stuff, which they never treated with the fuss and ceremony associated with "gifts": instead, it was more of a "Take This, It May Help You On Your Quest": the goal wasn't to make me feel happy and loved, but to deal with just the, bare necessities, the simple, bare necessities, to deal with all the worries and the strife of a growing ... (read more)

+1 funny

I don't remember how old I was, but I remember coming up with a great argument as to why Santa couldn't exist and then telling my parents... who pointed out the huge flaw in my argument. I remember being disappointed, but deciding that I had to go back to not believing if my reasoning turned out to be bad.

Some time later, my friend mentioned casually that Santa didn't exist. It didn't surprise me at all and I just went with it because it seemed obviously right.

I didn't know what happened, but I mentally marked it as something weird that beliefs shouldn't ... (read more)

My parents--fundamentalist christians--didn't participate in the santa myth, they told us when we first came across santa that it was something lots of people pretended about. The main reason they didn't lie to us about santa--and they explicitly told us this--was that they didn't want us to be disapointed about santa and subsequently decide god was like santa and didn't exist either. Perhaps, that should have been a big hint about the other invisble man, but I was like 5 or 6 at the time and homeschooled.

(Looking back and reading between the lines, I thin... (read more)

I was taught to believe in Santa Clause by both parents (atheist father and catholic mother).

One particular year (I think I was five) my mother told to me to pray the night before Christmas to get everything I wanted for Christmas. And I did. And I got everything I wanted for Christmas. Awesome! This prayer thing apparently really worked. (I had also written a letter to Santa a few weeks earlier)

The next year, my dad suggested I write another letter to Santa. I said "nah, I tried this prayer thing last year and it worked pretty well." Dad said &q... (read more)

Well that little trick totally backfired on her. The road to (your mom's perception of) hell was paved with her good intentions. This is an excellent anecdote to illustrate the value of ethical injunctions. Even though she (presumably) had no moral problem with actively misleading you on the power of prayer her dark arts ability is nowhere near the level required to consider all the possible consequences of her deception. She would have been better served by adopting an ethic for purely practical purposes.It may have delayed your apostasy a year or two.

I remember at about 8 years old being told by cousins that Santa was not real. I considered it unlikely that something my parents had been telling me would be untrue and argued as such. As it became clear that they were right and there was no Santa, my recollection is I became angry at my parents. I don't have a high degree of trust in these recollections as I also remember believing that I never lied to my parents before the age of 4 years old and I remember being punished for lying when I was telling the truth and being totally outraged. As a parent ... (read more)

I don't recall my parents ever encouraging a belief in Santa. I think I still picked it up from the general culture, but not very strongly- Christmas was "here's $100, pick out a gift for yourself" and so there wasn't really the mystery that accompanies it normally. If anything, I think I thought "Santa" was the codeword for the commercial part of Christmas rather than an actual entity.

That actually taught me the (probably unintentional but still greatly appreciated) lesson that spending windfalls on expensive things was really difficul... (read more)

Regardless of the pros and cons of the Santa deception, that sounds to me like an impoverished way to experience the occasion. Even if you don't end up enjoying everything you received very much, a lot of the fun comes from the expectation of being pleasantly surprised.
Yes. This is what makes present-buying a bloody nightmare. I realise magic is possible, therefore I am obliged to make it happen. (As an attitude, this can and has led to disastrous overreaching. It was almost a revelation when I realised I could give someone a birthday card that was just pretty good and that would be fine.)
Perhaps. I will note that I did receive other gifts, typically from grandparents who went with relatively safe choices in clothing, which were infrequently a recipe for being pleasantly surprised. I do not experience much anticipation or suspense with regard to Christmas, and that may be a real loss. But I find the tradeoff strongly preferable- I do not seem to experience a need for novelty in my material possessions. The people I know well that have such a need seem much worse off because of it. I also think the calculation that the value of surprise is greater than the lost value in inefficient gifts is mistaken (and the guilt and social hardships that can result), or at least only has a positive result for some subset of the population. I think a view of gift-giving as costly signalling is more accurate and less optimistic. The non-Grinch part of my message is: there are better places to find pleasant surprise than gift-giving rituals. Indeed, detaching gift-giving from ritual occasions seems to increase the surprise.
I'm sure it would increase the surprise, but it also decreases the anticipation, which is part of it. Personally, the gifts that I got the most enjoyment out of were usually video games; I'll revisit a good video game many times, even after the system has become outdated. Whereas I've bought most of my favorite books myself, most of my favorite games were given to me. However, given the choice, I would not have asked to receive only video games for Christmas, first because receiving several games rather than one or two would probably have resulted in a decrease in their average quality, and second, because it would prevent anyone who had a really good gift idea that wasn't a video game from giving it to me. On average, I would have probably received a greater total enjoyment from my gifts, but I would have lost much of the mystery and anticipation. The experience of knowing you might get something special and unexpected has utility in itself.

I've been exposed to the alternate viewpoint that this realization may be good for developing rationalists, because it provides children with the experience of discovering that they hold beliefs which are wrong and absurd, and that they must reject them.

At least one vociferous anti-rationalist agrees with this viewpoint: learning the truth about Santa Claus can lead one to reject Jesus, with disastrous results. You all know Jack Chick, right?

There's a valid point here, with one big qualification: one can learn the truth about Santa Claus without first being deceived by one's parents, with the emotional confusion that may bring. It's the same as how I learned about skepticism of God: I was acquainted with the concept through my peers' belief in it, and when I asked my mother about it she explained that this is an idea people came up with when they didn't understand the Universe as well. My parents could have let me learn about the fiction of Santa the same way, without modeling deception themselves.
Well, what I like about that comic is that it implicitly accepts that killing a fellow child in a murderous rage would be OK if that child denied the existence of Jesus, because Jesus is real!
I'm no fan of Chick's, but that's a bit of a reach.
Well, I don't think that Chick really accepts that conclusion. But I don't see how "The day that changed Harry--forever" would have gone differently if Harry had not been told about Santa etc, but the children had taunted him over Jesus instead. (Obviously Harry is not a Christian by Chick's standards, but we know that he has been told about Jesus.) If we are to blame stories about Santa etc for his actions, then we stories about Jesus are just as dangerous. Now that I write this out, perhaps Chick would agree. Stories about Jesus of the sort that you get in wishy-washy liberal churches (especially Roman Catholicism) are harmful, according to Chick. I came to my conclusion by assuming that Chick would never consider stories about Jesus to be harmful, but this was a mistake. So you are right.

I'm struggling with this myself right now.

I've long had the idea that, if I ever raised a child from a young age, I'd introduce Santa Claus as a make-believe game. I might be a little coy about it: tell the story of Santa and see if the kid can figure out the truth without giving a direct answer one way or the other; but I wouldn't lie. OK, there's a plan, but it's all theory, since I'll probably never raise a child.

But now I'm dating the single parent of a six-year-old. She is raising her child to believe in both Santa and Jesus; she herself knows the ... (read more)

I would suggest you be a good skeptic and answer the question about Santa Claus the same way you answered the question about Jesus: that you don't believe in him. Note this isn't the same as saying he doesn't exist, as this would be stating as fact that which is only highly probable.
The problem is that I'm already complicit in the deception. Besides putting quarters under her pillow, last night (Dec 24) I helped her mother put presents from Santa under the tree. Even before then, I was with her mother while she bought presents that were going to be (and eventually were) from Santa, and I knew all about it. If somebody were fooling her about Jesus in this way, I would be a lot more worried. (I'm not sure how I'd intervene, which would depend a lot on circumstances, but I'd certainly want to.) But she'll find out about Santa soon enough; I justify it to myself as less important. Lying to a kid about Santa, like making honest mistakes when talking about Jesus, is raising a child differently from how I would (whereas as lying to a kid about Jesus, with the intent that they believe the lie forever, is a step beyond). However, I do have an answer for questions from random children about the existence of Santa (which I haven't really tried out yet). And that is to quiz them about where they think that their presents come from, giving them a chance to figure out this answer for themselves. That's probably what I'll do here; the complication is that I know exactly where her presents come from (and by direction observation rather than by deduction from reasonable assumptions, as I would for a random child). In any case, I don't think that she's likely to ask me for another year now.
Well, she asked me a couple of weeks ago, for no reason that I know. I did as planned: asked who got the presents. She replied that Santa uses different wrapping paper than her mother does and seemed satisfied with that. (However, I never suggested the hypothesis that it was her mother who got the presents. Of course it's the obvious guess, but this means that she was actually thinking about it.)

I don't think learning the truth really affected my development one way or the other. One day when I was I-don't-remember-how-old, I asked to be told the truth and I was. I do remember that I wasn't very good at maintaining the conspiracy former my younger siblings, and almost let the truth slip a few times---and I'm still not very good at it and have almost let the truth slip to children in my family.

I am wary of whether lying to kids habitually is really as good for them as we rationalize, but the real reason I'm inclined not to spread this myth to my hy... (read more)

As soon as I asked if Santa was real (at 5 yr old or so), I got the truth. This made me happy. It may have helped me doubt and later leave the Mormon church at 12 yr old; it at least didn't hurt. I've always enjoyed xmas (minus shopping). I probably would have enjoyed it if I'd never heard a Santa story from my parents, but I do have a fond memory of really believing the cookies+milk would be consumed by Santa (4yr old). They definitely played pretend; they just didn't lie to my face when directly asked.

It's valuable to have at least a few people you reall... (read more)

Was raised modern orthodox Jew here, so can't really comment specifically on my own experiences...

But I can say some things on general principles: Treat kids fairly.

If you (as a parent) are going to be the sort of parent that punishes your kids for lying to you, then you'd better not be systematically lying to them (I'm not talking about lies-to-children, which can easily be presented in an non-deceptive way. Santa is NOT, however, that sort of thing at all. Santa is a blatant deception.)

I don't remember ever believing in Santa Claus. My family did exchange gifts with "Santa" in the "from" field, but as best I remember I always parsed this as what I might now describe as deference to a cultural norm.

Looking back on it, I think I must have mentally assigned Santa to the same class of myths that held Aesop's Fables or stories about Zeus or Coyote: entertaining stories carrying useful lessons about culture, but not to be taken literally. The children in media that believed in Santa always seemed to belong to idealized wo... (read more)

I don't recall being particularly fazed by it myself. Then again, I do think that the realisation was a gradual run rather than a sudden 'oh'. I suspect this is because it's not really something you think about in between Christmases. One Christmas it makes sense to you, the next one you've grown up a bit more, your mind has matured and the next time you think about Santa it's obviously false.

My strongest memory of the whole experience was having an argument about it with my classmates (yes, I was that kid). My parents got many angry calls from other paren... (read more)

I considered the existence of Santa a definitive proof that the paranormal/magic exists and not everything in the world is in the domain of science (and was slightly puzzled that the adults don't see it that way).

No conspiracies, but for a long time I've been very prone to wishful thinking. I'm not really sure if believing in Santa actually influenced that. I don't remember finding out the truth as a big revelation, though - no influence on my worldview or on trust for my parents.

(I've been raised without religion.)

To answer my own question, I personally figured out that the whole Santa story was a lie around the age of six or so, but I continued to believe in belief, that it was right or appropriate that young children be encouraged to believe in Santa Claus. I never confronted my parents about it, but we held an "I know you know I know" understanding, and I continued to prop up my younger sister's belief for years afterward. It wasn't until years later, after my sister had stopped believing, that I started to wonder why adults would want children to beli... (read more)

I think that lots of people have a kind of compulsion to lie to anyone they care about who is credulous, particularly children, about things that don't matter very much. I assume it's adaptive behaviour, to try to toughen up their reasoning skills on matters that aren't so important - to teach them that they can't rely on even good people to tell them stuff that is true.
They're just so cute when they believe nonsense!!! (Why they're cute may be given by Nancy below.)

finding it cute to see one's children believing ridiculous things

I personally find it horrifying that almost no one finds this in particular horrifying. Bestowing ridiculous (and possibly harmful) beliefs on one's children for one's own amusement strikes me as the sort of moral violation that is a mild step in the direction of Mind Rape (which I happen to think is worse than the other kind).

I was lucky and my parents never told me any of the Traditional Lies growing up, so I've only encountered this from the outside. I don't know if that's made me more... (read more)

I never believed that other kids believed in Santa. At about the typical age when kids find out I was incredulous that they had ever believed, and was ultimately horrified when convinced.

I'm slightly embarrassed. I actually thought I had been around 6 or 7 years old, but now found out that I had been nine. I found it out by "altruistically" wishing for world peace, which the all-powerful Santa should have been able to provide. I only got a game called Game of Peace (Looking it up right now, I found out that it was published in 1993, so I can't have been younger than 9 at the time). That's when I definitely stopped believing (Although my parents could have probably convinced me that Santa existed, but wasn't all-powerful, if they had bothered).

"Sorry kid, what can I tell ya? More people wanted war for Christmas. Ho, Ho, Ho!"
Or they could have taken a standard work on theodicy and replaced "God" with "Santa", to explain why a benevolent and all-powerful Santa would not grant prayers (I mean, wishes) for world peace. Christian apologetics actually tend to translate extremely well into Santa apologetics.
You'd think that somebody might have written to him about that by now, wouldn't you? I didn't start asking for world peace until well after I stopped believing in Santa (and possibly also after I stopped believing in God; in any case, I was asking ironically).

I was at school, and started a conversation with another kid about Santa, and he said, "Santa's just your parents." And that made sense to me, and I said, "Oh." And I didn't believe in Santa any more. I don't remember any particular emotional reaction; it just seemed like an obvious answer I hadn't previously noticed.

I told my younger sibling that Santa Claus was real:

  • Santa is the person who brings us the presents.
  • Our parents bring us the presents.
  • Our parents are real.

Therefore, Santa Claus is real.

I don't remember how I found out the truth, but this is how she found out, when she asked me.

Clearly in the presence of experts, I'm afraid to suggest that step four in your logic ought to read: "Therefore our parents are Santa". Am I missing something?
It's all right; the classical syllogisms only take two premises to one conclusion, whereas here I want to take three premises to one conclusion. So classically, this requires two steps; the intermediate step can either be that the person who brings us presents is real or that our parents are Santa. On the other hand, it is still a valid syllogism all at once, a generalisation of the classical ones.

Growing up as a moderate Jew, I never really gave Santa or the Easter Bunny much thought. My parents pretended to believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I started losing teeth late, around age 10, and by then I could tell pretty easily that they were pretending. I felt vaguely smug about not having been taken in by common myths when people in middle school swapped stories about when they found out Santa wasn't real, but I don't think it was that important.

One thing that did bother me was teaching Bible stories in Sunday school, as a college student supervising fi... (read more)

That sounds an awful lot like neglecting externalities. My understanding is that the more popular saints and prophets did not announce the specifics of their tactically-significant miracles in advance, and that more than a few people voted for Bush on the strength of his claim to communicate with God (along with the implication that he can ask for help when needed, and has a better-than-average chance of receiving it).
All right, both very fair points. Let's shift gears; please help me leave a line of retreat. How do atheists generally cultivate altruism? Note that I'm NOT claiming that atheists are less moral on average, still less that theism is somehow required for certain levels of morality. Both of those are really stupid things to say. What I am concerned about is that even upon being exposed to the logic of non-zero-sum games, some people remain remarkably selfish and/or cynical. Is there any way to deliberately increase their altruism and/or idealism without resorting to mysticism or religion?
I'm aware of no evidence that theistic belief even helps people be more altruistic. I subscribe to the view held by many psychologists, that philosophical rationales (including theistic ones) are usually the effects of behaviors, not their causes, while the actual causes are typically emotional in nature. As TheOtherDave suggests, the kind of emotional response people have to a situation is largely shaped by their previous social experience.
Right; I agree with you. Theism, in and of itself, doesn't get you anywhere. It does, however, help enable the rest of organized religion. It's hard to take church or whatever too seriously if you're a confirmed atheist. Organized religion, in my opinion, does have many useful and powerful resources for building character. I doubt that getting access to these resources is worth the irrationality, though, so I'm looking for substitute character-building resources. Other commenters have suggested teaching people about tit-for-tat, collective action problems, etc., but I'm not convinced that game theoretic education can take the place of character education -- you can understand quite clearly how the world would be better off if everyone cooperated, and nevertheless feel that your best individual course of action is to defect around the edges and try to hide it.
Why would you expect church to be good character education compared to, say, television, which preaches a much more modern and sophisticated morality. I suggest Nip/Tuck, or for the young, Kimba: The White Lion and maybe the Ewoks Droids Adventure Hour. If you want a religion though, there are surely factually accurate forms of atheistic Buddhism.
Well, if your church is just preaching at you, then I suppose it would be strictly dominated by good television shows. The churches I bother attending also involve studying, reflection, social activism, community service, mutual support, ritual, indoctrination, etc. It's a much more participatory experience, and so it's much more effective than watching television at changing your character. As for whether the state that it's changing your character to is desirable, well, that's a matter of finding the right church. There are a few out there, and, more to the point (if you scroll up a few comments) I would like to identify a better, secular character-change institution. Watching TV wasn't quite what I had in mind. I don't want a religion; I want a character-building institution. Currently, my known list of sources for that is {Religion.} I would love your help expanding the set.
TV really isn't so bad. I honestly find it difficult to entertain the possibility that the 90th percentile church is better than the 90th percentile TV show. I'm sure that there are 99th percentile churches, but I'd expect them to be much more like a good dojo, gym, skateboarding/surfing group, band, community theater or the like. The general purpose word for this sort of thing is civil society. Decent colleges are hotbeds of it. I guess I'd suggest looking for a really good gym. Or in a major city, the local Less Wrong group.
Semi-formally (and game-theoretic understandings should generate this independently) your best course of action is to defect only where pr(found out) disutility of being found out *< gain of defecting - gain of cooperating. This is my understanding of what you wrote - given that it's what you intended, this is the way society actually works. Even theistic people unconsciously perform this operation - witness the cases of evangelists thinking they can hide it. What's more, and this is only an informal observation on my part, success in society seems to involve some level of defecting around the edges. At least in Australia, the tall poppy syndrome and the popularity of trashy magazines seems to me like an outcome of people suspecting that successful people have defected around the edges, and trying to uncover where they have hidden it. Basically, it's my view that defecting around the edges (given that I define the edges correctly) is not something to avoid.
Yes, but only if you're selfish. If you're an idealist, then "your best course of action" might be to play by the rules even when P(caught)U(caught) << U(D) - U(C). Note that this issue is harder than it looks to define away -- if you define utility in terms of some ideology (international socialism) or species (humanity) so as to include your preference for playing by the rules, then we can still worry about cases where people of good faith but different ideologies (Spanish Civil War) or species (Three Worlds Collide) are trying to work together. In those cases, your urge to play by your own flavor of altruistic rules is in conflict with tropes like honesty, honor, and symmetry. Institutions like markets can accomplish a whole hell of a lot with people who always cheat around the edges, but there are a few, erm, edge cases where it's really handy to have a couple of reliably honest people around. Somebody has to watch the watchers, and it probably doesn't hurt if they truly believe that God is watching them. I suspect that fundamentalists who take vacations with rent boys just have bad character; there are plenty of religious people with bad character. My claim isn't that religion does make you a better person; my claim is that religion opens doors to self-improvement techniques that make you a better person. Any given theist still has to invest hundreds of hours in learning and applying the techniques in order to see any benefits. Most of 21st century organized religion is very bad at screening out religious leaders who don't learn or don't apply the techniques.
Well, yes: encourage them to develop social bonds to a group of secularists among whom altruist and/or idealist activities are highly valued, preferably one with mechanisms to prevent cheap methods for signaling altruism and/or idealism to displace those activities. Of course, that raises the question of how to identify such a group... or create it in the first place.
Among secularists, the term ‘humanist’ is a good sign. I belong to a community of secular humanists (although it doesn't have enough families to help with raising children yet). You can get a close copy of mainline Protestant church socialisation at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the United States. (Individual congregations vary widely, however, and not all are really secular, with various degrees of monotheism, neopaganism, and pantheism all possible in the culture, although they should be accepting of anybody.)
Interesting point. I have actually noticed that among my friends the religious ones are also the less selfish and cynical ones (even though that wasn't what you were saying). However, they are less selfish even in zero-sum games, so there's a point against resorting to mysticism or religion. As for increasing their altruism, I found that learning of the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma and the tit-for-tat strategy make a marked difference for me. Maybe this could generalise to "learn rationality".
Comparing doing good things for your local community, even in a small way, to doing housework - it's work, but you benefit from not drowning in crap - seems to get the point across IME. Note that there are no housecleaners to employ. (I'm not sure the police count in the meaning of the analogy I'm using.)
I'm sorry, I didn't understand your last comment. Would you please try other words or phrases?
I think David_Gerard is getting at the point that because of interconnectedness, helping others also helps us. Mutual benefit is not the same as altruism, but a stronger awareness or understanding of it can encourage good acts. If I hoover the living room, my housemates benefit more than I do from less dust, but I don't have to listen to them sneezing. If I shovel the snow off my neighbours' front pavement as well as my own, they (who don't own snow shovels) don't have to do it, but my post is easier to deliver. Goodwill from the postman goes a long way!The shelter I volunteer at makes some contribution to the safety of this neighbourhood. The money I send each month to a small school in Africa means the children who study there are less likely to be involved in violence which, while seeming far-removed from my life here in the UK, could conceivably have an effect. The idea that everything is interconnected, there are no externalities and the good of another really is to my benefit as well can be a strong argument. It isn't altruism, though, as I understand it. Altruism is my doing these things even though the benefit to me is low compared to the benefit if I were to spend my time and energy and money elsewhere. As I also derive significant warm fuzzies and a small amount of good reputation from these actions I cannot claim to be truly altruistic, though I would like to think I am. If this is true of most idealists or altruists, I'm not certain the distinction matters. My best guess as to how to systematically inculcate altruism is by practical, structured volunteering coupled with discussion. With a bit of luck the warm fuzzies should kick in. In London I thought the Unitarians were fairly strong here but ultimately the community was too small and not theist enough for my other requirements. I have learned or "caught" warm fuzzies from others being kind to me even when the benefit to them was small. Many of these people are theists but a significant number are
For my own part, I'm inclined to call someone who derives significant warm fuzzies from helping others "altruistic", by comparison to someone who doesn't. I'll grant you that it might be more precise to say that they have altruistic values, rather than that they are performing altruistic acts.
That makes sense. Assuming altruism in general is desirable: * how do we teach or pass on altruistic values outside a religious setting? * if this is difficult or impossible, is it better to convince people to perform altruistic acts even if that runs contrary to their values? Is that possible without an element of dishonesty? I think religion can be a vehicle for the transmission of altruistic values, but I dislike the way it is often used to bamboozle people into behaving in certain ways (some of which, in more positive cases, are altruistic). I am also wary of some of the other values religion often transmits.
As I said here: encourage people to develop social bonds to a community of secularists among whom altruist activities are highly valued, preferably one with mechanisms to prevent cheap methods for signaling altruism from displacing those activities. I doubt religion per se has much to do with altruism. But religious communities are typically tangible and visible and persistent, and that's important for the transmission of values. And, sure, encouraging people to perform acts that benefit others, even if they don't want to, is possible without dishonesty. Force is a popular alternative, for example... either physical or social. Whether that's a good thing or not is another question. For example, many countries collect taxes from residents and use a significant share of those taxes to provide resources to citizens in need; many taxpayers don't especially value providing resources to their fellow citizens, but nevertheless pay taxes.
I'd quite forgotten about force. I see a lot of activism that is carried out by groups which, if not specifically secularist, are not explicitly religious, but this tends to be single-issue stuff. Religious communities, in my experience, tend to teach on or examine or respond to every aspect of life (though it is debateable how successful most are, as there is nowadays the problem of people leaving if they don't like what they hear). Are there secular movements which attempt to be so all-embracing?
I don't know, but I also don't think attempting to be all-embracing is necessarily a good idea. If a community acts altruistically in the contexts that arise to be acted in, then new members of that community will tend to adopt altruistic values, and will in turn act altruistically in contexts that arise to be acted in. That's true regardless of what those contexts turn out to be. They don't ever have to talk about altruism or look for ways to manifest altruism in contexts that don't seem to require it; indeed, doing so is one way that signaling ends up displacing doing. Not that there's anything wrong with talking about one's values, any more than there's anything wrong with talking about one's tastes in food. But talking about food is a different kind of task than cooking or eating, and talking about altruism is different from behaving altruistically. If a community gives up opportunities to behave altruistically in favor of talking, they communicate the value of talking rather than the value of altruism. Incidentally, none of this is unique to altruism.
The analogy is community maintenance analogous to household maintenance. You can hire housecleaners, but hiring people for your community can be harder.
But anyone who asks for help will receive it! (See Matthew 7:7–11.) I know, I know; nobody really believes that; they only believe that they believe it.
Even if they genuinely believed that, claiming to talk to God on a regular basis could sill be reassuring. The smaller-scale equivalent would be
But if this ad is directed at me, and I also play poker with some guys in the mortar battery every week, and I genuinely believe that those guys will provide fire support whenever I ask them, even if I'm a lowly grunt, then what does it matter who's platoon leader? Actually, I can think of a reason: It's best if the platoon leader knows these guys too, since the platoon leader will actually know of more situations than I will to call on these guys. It's the "better-than-average chance" that shouldn't affect anybody with a genuine belief in Matthew 7. According to the Bible, the chance is either 1 or 0 (or so close that you might as well round it off), once you know whether a person is Christian or not.
In the one referred by MassDriver, where Joshua makes the sun stand still, he does ask for that to happen. Note that many Biblical miracles have the prophets saying what will happen in advance. Most likely the stories never even took place. Similarly, many modern faith healers say what will happen well in advance, but the claimed miracles are simply not impressive. Do you have a citation for this? Certainly there were people who voted for Bush due to his religion. But I'm not aware of any evidence that a substantial number of people voted for him due to claims that he could talk to God.

About a month ago I wrote about Santa stories I grew up with in the context of a childhood filled with "tall tales" of varying levels of obviousness.

When I was of an age to believe in Santa Claus, I found it quite easy to believe in something just because I wanted to believe in it. I knew my parents wanted me to believe in Santa, so I did that. I ended up believing in Santa longer than they intended and they finally had to tell me he wasn't real when I was 9. It didn't upset me particularly, but I didn't like the idea of lying to my brothers. My parents had a solution: I would help be Santa for them, which would result in them getting better Christmas presents, because I knew exactly what they wanted. This worked out great for the rest of the time that they believed.

I never told my parents I had figured it out. I had younger siblings and the tradition seemed harmless, so I just played along with it. It didn't dawn on me at the time how much coordination across all of society went into the deception, so the realization didn't really seem all that special.

My earliest memory regarding Santa includes knowledge that Santa was not "really" real, but something that we were supposed to pretend. I don't know where or when I picked that up, but I don't think the deception negatively affected me.

On the other hand, my mother is a Methodist Pastor, and the God deception had a much deeper impact on me. I recognized that it was not fiction in the same sense---that my parents believed it, and it was a great source of internal conflict that I couldn't accept God's existence as they could.

My folks raised us in borderline-fundamentalist Christianity, which made the Santa myth nearly as much of a non-starter as I expect it was for those commenters who were raised Orthodox Jewish.

If and when I have children of my own, I intend to use the Santa myth as an exercise in invisible-dragon baiting, nothing more.


I don't remember the point in my development where I could tell the difference between make-believe and actual beliefs that something is factually true or false.. I don't think I was scarred by being misled about Santa by my parents, but I think I was pretty much a non-rational being for at least the first 18 years of my life. My main reason for not trusting people was probably that my Dad was violent, controlling and depressive, so a position on Santa one way or the other is not likely to be the most significant factor there.

However, for some reason, I'v... (read more)

If you want to ask conspiracy theorists about this, I'd probably try the http://abovetopsecret.com/ forum.

I created an account for the site, but unfortunately it wasn't until after I set it up that I was informed that I would need to create at least twenty replies to existing topics before I gaining the privilege of being able to post new discussion threads. Posting large numbers of unsubstantive comments understandably attracts negative attention from the mods, so it might be a while before I can post my question. The site design is positively labyrinthine, by the way. The signup form advises me to post first in the introduction thread, but wherever that is, it's very well hidden.

There was this rule my parents had where I couldn't tell other kids that Santa was fake. I think I ended up overestimating how many of my peers knew Santa was fake and weren't just playing along for the sake of fulfilling their parent's wishes.

I stopped believing in Santa Claus at age seven, probably shortly after Christmas, when my older brother told me he didn't exist. I was very upset and cried at the time. But a year later, as Christmas approached I had a very "special," superior feeling from knowing something my parents didn't know I knew. I think it was on the same Christmas day when I was eight that I informed them I knew he wasn't real. Mysteriously, after this he no longer gave me any presents, though I think the total number was unaffected.

I don't recall having any conscious ... (read more)

I don't remember believing in Santa Claus. I don't remember how exactly I came to disbelieve. I do remember a conversation with my mother (I can't have been more than five) in which I stated my disbelief and she asked me not to share it with my younger brother, so that he could believe for another year or so. I don't remember any great emotional upheaval. I also don't think my parents went to any particular lengths to preserve the delusion.

That's similar to my experience, although I think I was six years old rather than five. There was no specific trauma that led to my conclusion; I just decided it was more realistic that my parents were Santa Claus (and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy) than if these entities actually existed. I asked my mother, she confirmed it, and I continued to play along for the benefit of my younger brother and cousins.

I am still angry at my parents for lying to me.  My parents were quite the authoritarians so aside from other things, it was instilled in me that lying was bad and yet they committed the ultimate lie against kids by perpetrating the Santa myth.  Years later when I asked them why they gave the usual excuses are let kids be kids and have magic in their life but then that is encouraging delusion.  Oh and of course there is the 'but its tradition' excuse.  Well just because its tradition doesn't mean its right.  A long time ago the god... (read more)

As far as I know, it didn't do a thing to help me develop as a rationalist. (Indeed, I wouldn't even say that I'm a rationalist now, merely "rationalism-curious".) But I do know that I was pretty damn upset, and later in life I think it contributed to my deciding that premeditated lying to your children is fucked up — especially when it's this premeditated — and that I wasn't going to tell my children Santa was real if I ever had any. (This might end up being a moot point, as I become less certain with each passing year that I'll ever even have children.)

I... (read more)


The oldest of six children, I felt good about being initiated into my first adult secret society. Had I been one of the younger children I might have resented older siblings who'd held out on me.

I was also a little saddened that the world might be a little less magical than I'd assumed.

On the whole I was cool with it.

I figured out the non-existence of Santa Claus when I was about 5, I don't remember how. Someone posing as Santa visited a relative's Christmas party I was at and gave the children gifts and the local news in my city tracks "Santa's current location" on the weather radar periodically on Christmas Eve, which kind of made it a pink goo moment for me. I was angry and confused, but mostly kept this to myself. From this experience I concluded that my parents were not completely reliable and that society has a significant disrespect for children, altho... (read more)

I'm inclined to think that lying to children is dominance behavior-- the people who do it are reassuring themselves that they're in charge. However, it's hard to get evidence about covert motives.
That makes sense, since it explains why deceived children are so cute. It doesn't even have to be a covert motive; the motive can quite honestly be that it's so nice to see the little darlings really believe. But reinforcing the sense of dominance in our own minds could still be the covert motive of our genes.

For anyone who wants to know how conspiracy theorists responded to the question, the thread is here, although there are not many replies yet.

Well, the Santa deception wasn't used on me. The false belief I held was that nobody actually takes Santa seriously. And also that I was bought in a store, which made me wonder where the store got me. Although I didn't take that one too seriously either, finding out the truth was still pretty disturbing. You mean he... she... they... EWWW! (Yeah, I got better.)

(Meme) Penis goes where?

I suppose my parents were probably a bit atypical in giving me The Talk (complete with admonishments to Always Use Protection) before owning up to the nonexistence of Santa. I believe I was five at the time.

My parents did not tell me about Santa, my friends didn't seem to take him seriously, and I got way to pessimistic and world weary for my own good before the age of eight, which still seems to be an issue now. lots of other factors were involved though, so the signal / noise ratio is infinitesimal. When I have kids, I want to them to be rational and see the world for what it really is, but I am willing to take a few liberties to avoid depressing them for a decade. It will not involve trying to get them to accept a fictional deity who offers to give people ... (read more)

Count me as another one who was irked at being lied to.

I don't remember a clear time when I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but I do remember some of the hints along the way. I especially remember how my parents would ask me what Santa Claus was bringing for Christmas and giving them coy answers, to see if Santa could know what I wanted even if I didn't tell him.

It didn't bother me whether or not Santa Claus was real, and I played along when my sister asked my parents. I knew who the real agent behind Santa Claus, was, though, and in third grade made sure to carefully explain to my parents why Santa should... (read more)

This reminds me of the whole lies-to-children method of teaching. I think it prepared me for when people are actually wrong. When I took a Frequentist statistics class, it never occurred to me that it was anything other than an approximation for Bayesian statistics. It also meant that I had less trouble when they taught me about waveform collapse.


I don't think it did affect me in any noticeable way. I ended up becoming an atheist, but I don't remember Santa having anything to do with it. My brother, who had the same Santa experiences, is still religious.

Did it make me trust my parents less? Not really, though that might just be because my parents were so transparent about it. In our house, it was always more like, "Of course Santa is real, wink wink" then a real deception. (Still didn't figure it out till I was six, though..)

I already partly explained my own experience in another comment on LW, but I'll give a bit more of details there.

The first point I've to emphasis on is that my parents told me a slightly different version of the usual Santa Claus story : they didn't include the "only nice children have presents" part. They told me it was part of the standard version, but they told me that was just said to make children behave, that I would have presents even if I misbehaved, but that I still should be a nice boy, not for having presents, but because being nice is... (read more)

What I find most interesting here is when the claim adapts itself in the face of evidence. A friend of mine at 6/7 saw his dad filling the stocking etc. and a group of us decided that the most likely solution was that Santa existed, but delegated certain of his activities to families in some cases, as he had so much on his plate.

More generally, I'm inclined to think it's harmless. If anything, I lean towards the 'helps develop rationality', but that's probably biased because I like Christmas.

Penny Arcade has just published a strip on this subject.

I wish this had been a front-page post, not just a discussion post. Is there a way to convert a discussion to a post, without losing comments?