Related on OB: Lying to Kids The Third Alternative

My wife and I are planning to have kids, so of course we've been going through the usual sorts of debates regarding upbringing. We wondered briefly, will we raise our children as atheists? It's kindof a cruel experiment, as folks tend to use their own experiences to guide raising children, and both of us were raised Catholic. Nonetheless, it was fairly well settled after about 5 minutes of dialogue that atheist was the way to go.

Then we had the related discussion of whether to teach our children about Santa Claus. After hours of debate, we decided we'd both have to think on the question some more. It's still been an open question for years now.

Should we teach kids that Santa Claus exists? This isn't a new question, by any means. But it's now motivated by this thread about rationalist origin stories. Note that many of the posters mark the 'rationalist awakening' as the time they realized God doesn't exist. The shock that everybody, including their parents, were wrong and/or lying to them was enough to motivate them to pursue rationality and truth.

If those same children were never taught about God, Santa Claus, and other falsehoods, would they have become rationalists, or would they have contented themselves with playing better video games?  If the child never realized there's no Santa Claus, would we have a reason to say, "You're growing up and I'm proud of you"?

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I grew up knowing that Santa didn't exist. My parents had to then explain to me that I couldn't tell certain kids about this because their parents wanted them to still think Santa was real until they were a bit older. I still remember being quite shocked that these parents were lying to their kids, along with grandparents and other family members, and then expecting even me to join in. I was further shocked by the fact that most of these kids never worked it out themselves and had to eventually be told by their parents or a group of their friends (being told by one or two friends usually wasn't enough.)

So, while I never experienced the shock of finding out that Santa wasn't real, watching these parents lying to their kids about Santa again and again certainly left a strong impression on my young mind.

So kids can just look at other people's deceptions. Good point!

That is a good point.

One of the reasons parents often give for the Santa myth is that it is "fun" and it's good to give children a sense of wonder and joy. This is not a trivial argument.

I don't have children yet, but this post has made me wonder if a strictly no-lies-about-basic-reality policy wouldn't lead to just as much wonder. Is Santa really that necessary, even for the stated junior-level purpose it's given?

There are lots of fantastic, amazing things to wonder at, as a child and as an adult:

Everything in our universe may have started in the biggest, most gigantic-est explosion ever! BLAM!

There are millions of tiny critters living inside your tummy right now and they are helping you every day to eat your food! YUM!

All 7 billion people in the world are the great-great-great-(....)great-great grandchildren of one large-sized family of people who came from Africa! WOW!

That's great stuff. I feel like I should be taking notes.

Whatever your opinion on Santa Claus, I hope we can agree that the woman in the link handled the issue badly. The girl believed in Santa because her mother said he was real, then disbelieved because her mother said he wasn't. Of course she cried -- she was powerless from beginning to end.

Parenting Beyond Belief gives a much better Santa disillusionment tale:

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

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

The “Yes, Virginia” crowd will heap implausible nonsense on the poor child, dismissing her doubts with invocations of magic or mystery or the willful suspension of physical law. Only slightly less problematic

... (read more)

My oldest child is six. She has always been taught to distinguish 'real' from 'pretend', and encouraged to decide which is which herself.

She seems to have no problem discovering that something she previously believed is false - at this age there is still so much to learn, and her world view is updating pretty constantly.

What does seem to be distressing for her is finding out that some adults believe things which she has placed solidly in the 'pretend' category. Her teacher's belief in god is particularly perplexing for her.

In case you're still active, I'm curious what your child's reasoning was for placing God in the pretend category. Like, did she know about Occam's Razor, or was she pattern matching God with other fantasies she's heard? I'm mostly curious because I don't think I've ever heard a perspective as undiluted as an Untheist's.
Since scotherns says that they explicitly taught her to distinguish real from pretend, there is little doubt that she gathered it from scotherns' own opinion, manifested by behavior and attittude, even if not explicitly stated. Especially since apparently she did not know that anyone believed in God, which means that she knew that scotherns did not.

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that most kids aren't taught about Santa because their parents are trying to set up a rationalist epiphany opportunity for them. Rather, they're taught about Santa because, well, the parents themselves were probably taught about Santa (and God, for that matter) when they were kids, and they probably just figure it's one of those things you do when you have children.

Plus (and I think there might have been an OB post about this once), many adults find ignorance/innocence of certain types in children to be "cute" or appealing in some way. I think the appeal of the Santa mythos for some parents is that it feels to them like they are giving their child a chance, if only a brief one, to live in a world where "magic" actually exists.

In any case, I got in trouble on multiple occasions growing up for talking about how the Easter Bunny wasn't real, how Minnie Mouse (at Disneyland) was a human in a suit, etc., in front of younger kids. That probably confused me more than anything else, more than the fact of having been told things that weren't true to begin with -- I felt like I was being pressured to perpetuate some weird group fantasy... (read more)

"I felt like I was being pressured to perpetuate some weird group fantasy and had a terrible time figuring out what I'd supposedly done "wrong"" Yes! A thousand times yes! We stress the importance of distinguishing between fantasy and reality, but then people actively try to confuse their children as to what's real and what isn't - all the while thinking less of children because they're supposedly not good at it.

My experience is that most people claim to have suffered no trauma from eventually finding out that there is no Santa.

It is also my experience that 100% of the people who claimed they weren't harmed were also irrationalists, in that they not only had no concern for rationality but actively embraced rationality-incompatible worldviews and methods.

Does that mean anything? I don't really know. You likely already know my position of its effects on me.

One bit of advice, though: I think you're really dealing with two questions: Should we tell our child that ... (read more)

Hrm... I'd say try to raise them, well, to think rationally. If you actually do decide to give them a "easy obstacle to train on", make sure you're otherwise getting them thinking rationally, and if they ever start calling you on the inconsistancy, or get suspicious, don't try to "cheat" or otherwise discourage such. Heck, maybe the correct thing is to do such, but to right way admit it when called on it, no hesitation at all.

Or alternately, if they ask "if santa's real", explicitly suggest it to them as an exercise, as something for them to try to figure out a way to actually test or otherwise determine.

Unless you're going to cloister your children until the state forces you to release them into the world, they're going to encounter plenty of irrationality without your needing to deliberately lie to them. I would try leading by example, rather than hoping for an epiphany that may never come.

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
What do children learn that counts for the same test as Santa Claus?

The lie of Santa Claus may be a learning experience, but it isn't actually a test per se -- every child finds out the truth one way or another.

What about ghosts, the supernatural and everything else of that kind they'll encounter in movies, television, cartoons, etc? The only difference with Santa is that most people grow out of it, whereas many adults continue to believe in ghosts, but that's because Santa is childhood-specific myth. If the same adults who think Santa is absurd were supposed to believe in Santa I'm sure they'd have no problems rationalizing it.

I say don't bother with Santa, unless you really think the shattered emotional engagement is necessary for some reason. Instead, come up with a technique similar to the one used in My Favorite Liar. Although much less complicated, of course.

I have to wonder what else you'd be teaching them alongside Santa, as a necessary corollary, that might not come unstuck when Santa himself does. At that young age, you are helping them create some pretty basic ground-state assumptions about reality.

I'm aiming for: * Some things are real, some are pretend * It can be hard to tell them apart, and even adults will disagree * Learning how to investigate and make up your own mind is more important than specific examples in either category

Interestingly, this is related to a question of whether being religious is a good thing because of the various associated benefits, even if it brings certain grave flaws, and an objection that certainly religion with all its lies can't be anywhere near the best thing to practice, that one can greatly improve on the status quo. But guess what, it's hard to improve on the status quo, it may be a right thing for the humanity to try, but it may be an impossible thing for a person to try. So, you need to choose not between the status quo and the best thing that... (read more)

I believe that you have an unexamined assumption in your post. Namely, can you have any effect on what your child believes?

A book by Judith Rich Harris called "The Nurture Assumption" makes the case that it is not parents that shape a child's attitudes and beliefs, but the child's peers. Parents impact on children tends to be primarily genetic and in the basics (no abuse, well fed and clothed, and choosing the general environment where the child is raised.) For a more detailed look on Harris's argument, see Malcolm Gladwell's article at http:/... (read more)

Good point - but it depends who counts as the child's 'peers'. In a harmful environment like public schools, the child is artificially sequestered with same-age children for most of the day (and in most households, then exposed to 'age-appropriate' television for the rest of it). Of course parents wouldn't have much impact in this environment. My children will be unschooled - that may be relevant.
JRH is mostly talking about the long term. Parents have little effect on their children's adult beliefs and behavior. They have an enormous impact on what they believe and how they act as children. One of JRH's examples that she brings out several times is what language is spoken fluently as an adult. We tend to assume kids get it from their parents, but that's a spurious correlation. Nearly all normal children are exposed to parents and peers who speak the same language, and the children end up matching both. When parents and peers speak different languages, children end up speaking the same language as their peers, once they move out of the home. While still at home, they continue speaking to their parents in their parents' language. Similarly, the Santa question is about what your child believes during the formative years. No one continues to believe the Santa story beyond 15, so that isn't a question of peers vs. parents.

This seems to me like "status quo bias" at work.

If there were no "Santa Claus" meme, you surely wouldn't try to invent new things to lie to your children about, would you?

I'm not going to assume that outright. If we take the 'rationalist origin stories' at face value, then it seems like it might be better for children to be lied to about seemingly important things, so that they have the epiphany that it's important to care about the truth. In the absence of Santa, maybe theism would be the only option? Or pastafarianism?
The prosecutor's fallacy seems to be in play here -- Pr(rationalist | lied to as a child) is not necesarily equal to Pr(lied to as a child | rationalist). (And that's not even getting into the swamp of causality...)

It might be useful to teach the Santa Claus myth in order to teach fantasising. It is necessary to know the difference between reality and fantasy, but fantasy is where one can explore how one might Like the world to be, and then begin to plan a way towards it; and fantasy can lead in to lateral thinking.

If you find yourself classifying the goal for where you want to bring the world as "fantasy", you either should update your estimates of what can be real, or exclude the fantasy goal. Don't waste hope on unreal things, but see the real potential in absurdly good things to come (to do). Explore how you'd like the world to be within what's possible, and make sure that your model of what's possible includes the wonders that are possible. That will make your worldview that much brighter and that much saner.
Children need pretend. Don't squash their play. That's not to say that you should tell them things that are false. They'll generate plenty of fantasy on their own.
That's not to say that you should tell them things that are false. They'll generate plenty of fantasy on their own.

Raise them many-worlds.

4Eliezer Yudkowsky
Don't you mean "raise them to believe in a collapse postulate"? And isn't that a little too strong a test?
Either of those would do.
An excellent idea... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus; he's just not in our world. Here's a little exercise for MWI fans: estimate how many worlds there have to be before we can be sure Santa exists in one of them (his sleigh flying around because of random molecular collisions, getting into and out of houses by quantum tunnelling...)? Stuff like this reveals just how strange MWI is, and the attractions of single-world interpretations.

I am opposed to the Santa Claus myth, mostly because I hate lying.

Simply because it's false? Or because you aren't convinced it leads to more rational adults? Or some other reason?
Mostly because it's false, and I have a very powerful aversion to knowingly telling a falsehood (and to the general practice of doing the same). I also hate to be lied to. I don't like "white lies" and I refuse to tell them. If you ask me "Does this dress make me look fat?" I really will give you an honest answer - and I hope that other people will do me the same favor. If I didn't want an honest answer, I wouldn't have asked in the first place.
Curious, are you proud of how difficult you find lying?
Yes. (It probably comes from playing Ultima IV during my formative years.) I do admit to being a "truth twister" though - I won't tell false statements, but I am willing to omit relevant information, imply false conclusions, or simply refuse to answer awkward questions. (And yes, I agree that there is a certain degree of hypocrisy involved in this practice, but it serves as a reasonable workaround for my inability to lie the way other people seemingly have no trouble doing.)
This is ridiculous. A "truth twister"? This isn't hypocrisy. This is lying. To yourself, mostly. Unless you live in a cave, you tell white lies every day. Ever say Good Afternoon when you didn't feel like it? This sort of moral highhorsing gets us nowhere. Stop it, please.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky
More than one of my doctors has patient notes saying not to ask me "How are you doing?" which I asked them not to do, because I dislike giving the standard nonanswer "Fine", because sometimes I'm not actually fine. Crono, stay on that moral high horse!
I stopped lying, to the best of my ability, years ago. I've found, though, that as my lying skills have degraded, I have also partially lost the ability to consider my words before I speak and I have lost the knack for social pablum (although I may never have had that to begin with; tough to say). When someone asks me how I am, I always answer "same as always." I would like to say that I do it so that I don't need to commit to a position with which I disagree, but the truth is that the words come out before I can figure out the normal, polite response. Overall, I think that lying is a very valuable skill. Maybe it is like self-defense; something that you hope that you don't have to use, but is always good to have available.
Saying you're "Fine" to a doctor, when you are not, would be a little foolish, would it not? As opposed to your standard workaday white lies.
I think I'm similar to CronoDAS in being a "truth twister", but I don't know the exact details of how much truth (s)he is willing to twist, so I'm not sure how similar we are. I'd like to make a point here. When someone says "Good morning" to you and you reply "Good morning" back to them, the information you are communicating is that you are greeting them, not that you actually think this morning is a good morning or anything like that. So in this sense, I wouldn't consider it a lie to say "Good morning" even if though the morning were particularly bad.
As I understand it, ‘Good morning!’ is short for ‘I wish you a good morning.’, not ‘I'm having a good morning.’. It's not a lie if you're in a bad mood, but it may be a lie if you say it to somebody that you dislike.
"This isn't hypocrisy. This is lying." Lying is making a false statement with the intent to deceive. Refusing to make a statement isn't lying unless silence is itself a statement. Deception, now, is a different matter. All of the things CronoDAS mentioned are certainly deceptive, but they're not lying.
It seems to me that with a complicit surrounding culture, you could get the full "santa experience" without telling any explicit lies. "Daddy, how does Santa do X?" "Well, some people think Y -- do you think that's a good explanation?" and then patiently wait for the day Y is rejected as nonsense.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky
"A wizard may have subtle ways of telling the truth, and may keep the truth to himself, but if he says a thing the thing is as he says. For that is his mastery." -- A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Leguin
And in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, no one trusts the Aes Sedai, because after they vow to always tell the truth, they learn how to twist their words to get what they want anyway. Someone who would tell the truth in a way that they knew would not convey the truth would not hold my trust.
1Marion Z.
The Aes Sedai have the advantage that Robert Jordan is writing books, and whenever he needs to demonstrate that Aes Sedai can capably mislead while telling the truth, he arranges the circumstances such that this is possible. In real life, seriously deceiving people about most topics on the fly - that is, in a live conversation - without making untrue statements is pretty hard, unless you've prepared ahead of time. It's not impossible, but it's hard enough that I would definitely have a higher baseline of belief in the words of someone who is committed to not telling literal lies.
Telling lies and discerning lies are both extremely important skills, becoming adept at it involves developing better and better cognitive models of other humans reactions and perspectives, a chess game of sorts.  Human society elevates and rewards the most adept liars; CEOs, politicians, actors and sales people in general, you could perhaps say that Charisma is in essence mostly convincing lying.  I take the approach with my children of punishing obvious lies, and explaining how they failed because I want them to get better at it, and punishing less or not at all when they have been sufficiently cunning about it. For children I think the Santa deception is potentially a useful awakening point - a right of passage where they learn not to trust everything they are told, that deception and lies and uncertainty in the truth are a part of the adult world, and a little victory where they can get they get to feel like they have conquered an adult conspiracy.  They rituals are also a fun interlude for them and the adults in the meantime. As a wider policy I generally don't think absolutism is a good style for parenting (in most things), there are shades of grey in almost everything, even if you are a hard-core rationalist in your beliefs, 99.9% of everyone you and your children deal with won't be, and they need to be armed for that.  Discussing the grey is an endless source of useful teachable moments.
1Marion Z.
Agreed on the first point, learning about lying is good. On the parenting bit, I'll preface this by saying I don't have kids but this seems like a great way to create a "dark rationalist". I am not perfectly or near-perfectly honest, though I admire people who are and think it's probably a good idea, but rewarding skilled lies as a training tool feels dangerous.  Neutral on the second point, Santa may in fact be a useful deception but I think there are associated downsides and I don't feel strongly either way. Absolutism can be useful because parents are supposed to be constants in their childrens' lives, reliable and consistent. Absolute rules such as "I will not say literally false things to my child ever" build a lot of trust, implicit and explicit, especially when you have demonstrated your willingness to adhere to it in situations where you really really don't want to. And parent-child trust is, anecdotally, by far the most influential factor on young adult happiness I have ever seen. 

With my daughter now being three (and more aware of holidays, etc.), my husband and I really need to determine our strategy for this Christmas.

Currently, I'm leaning towards: 1. not lying to my daughter, 2. and yet keeping silent if/when other people tell her about Santa, 3. using the Socratic method when she asks about Santa, and 4. encouraging her to respect others' beliefs (not run around denouncing Santa yet, if, asked for her opinion, to be honest).

For instance, even if it caused no harm, I can't justify lying to her when I want her to value honest... (read more)

Of course, for something completely different regardless of what you do about Santa, you could introduce her to an alternative mythos and its culture.
Funny stuff lessdazed. I'm all for exposing her to different cultures but that one might have to wait until she's much older. ;-)
Can you make the subject what it is reasonable for her to believe based on what everyone is telling her, rather than what is true?
Thanks for catching that lessdazed -- I didn't realize I was falling into a potential trap. Assuming I understood you correctly, there is a huge difference between: 1. Considering whether to keep silent regarding beliefs she's told that I feel are false 2. Considering whether to keep silent regarding all beliefs she's told. To only do 1. would be counterproductive given my stated goal to encourage independent thought in her. (By countering only beliefs I find false, she would just end up adopting my worldview.) And in the end, it may be best to be really careful about sharing any of my opinions with her, instead using the Socratic method to help her test hers. Is this what you meant? (And I love your username especially as I would like to be less dazed.)
Yes, I didn't want to use the term "Socratic Method" because for me it brings to mindasking your three year old if there is an ideal form of a chair that all chairs approximate or the like, it is qualitatively the Socratic Method. "I believe in Santa." "Why?" "Because all the kids in my class do and adults tell me about him and the kids who say he isn't real want to be mean." "I see." Thank you about the name comment.
One factor to consider is that all your daughter's peers will believe in Santa, and it's hard for a young kid to understand why all their friends' parents think something different than their parents. I'd tell her presents come from Santa, and then when she asks tell her that Mom and Dad are Santa. This is what my parents did, and I remember figuring out for myself that Santa didn't exist was an exciting moment. Challenging Santa-belief requires you to notice confusion (why do poor kids not get good presents from Santa, when they need them more? how does Santa get to all those houses in one night?), come up with a better alternative, and figure out whether your alternative is right (which I did by asking "Mommy, are you and Daddy Santa?"), all while ignoring conformity pressures.. That's an incredibly valuable lesson,and I don't know anyone who felt lied to by their parents when they figured it out.
Thanks KPier -- I appreciate your comment. I'm not convinced that I'd need to lie to her to meet your concerns. I.e., If I go forward with keeping silent, I expect she will still be exposed to Santa from daycare staff, other kids, my parents, etc. and will most likely believe in Santa and so the conflict of her beliefs being different from others wouldn't be until she questioned me about it and by that time she would hopefully be mature enough to understand how to respect others beliefs. (and she would still get to notice confusion, etc. as well) However, without me lying to her, she would most likely come to that conclusion sooner than her peers and so that's still something to consider. However, if everyone will encounter beliefs that differ from their own, doesn't it make sense to plan with the end in mind and prepare her from the start rather than base my decision on the convenience and conventions of other people? Perhaps I am being too black and white in my beliefs and am also not taking into account what is possible for a 3 or 4 year old to learn.
I think the strategy you currently outlined makes sense, and it certainly wasn't my intent to convince you to lie to her. I think figuring out Santa for yourself does provide good lessons, but your method seems to be a good third alternative.

The phraseology "raise them X" suggests to me inculcating deep, emotional, childhood-locked belief in X. The only X for which that seems supportable is rationality itself.

5Eliezer Yudkowsky
There's no way you can teach a child any particular definition of rationality that's true enough to be locked in that way. Hell, there's no way you can teach an adult that. You could teach them to respect the truth... but no matter what you teach them, sooner or later it's going to fail them, and the best you can do is try to deliver that warning.

My parents taught me about God the same way that they did about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, and I don't think it did me any harm. I decided for myself that God didn't exist before I figured out that my parents were atheists too, but I don't have any especially strong memories of figuring out any of the three.

Nice link - thanks. My daughter's going to be Santa Claus age soon enough. Maybe I'll print this out for future reference. Probably unbearably saccharine to the childless, but hey, they may have some crumbgobblers of their own someday, and then it will make more sense.

Seems to me (maybe I'll report back on this in, say, a decade) that the "Santa Claus shock" won't be as bad as a "God shock" because people who lie to their kids about Santa Claus know they are lying and every kid finds out the truth sooner or later; whereas theists don... (read more)

Telling someone not to report a fact which they know to be true has no bearing on teaching them to be members of a tolerant free society that I'm aware of... I mean to say, "tolerance" and "freedom" have nothing to do with not telling your Christian classmate that his religion is a fairly transparent myth.
I'm talking about from the perspective of a child, MBlume. We live in a society where lots of folks teach their kids lots of silly myths. It isn't your job to teach your kid to go around exposing them all the time. At least not unless you want to raise an intolerable pedant.
Honestly, I'm gonna have to back down from this one -- I never went to elementary school as an atheist, and I have no idea what it would be like. The more I think about it, the more it sounds pretty difficult.
I did. It wasn't especially difficult at all - but then, the subject of religion was never brought up by the teachers and rarely by the students, so no one knew. I can easily imagine that it would be difficult in a school and a culture in which public declarations of religious affiliation were accepted and encouraged, even mandated.
I was raised atheist, and it wasn't difficult at all. In fact, I only know the religion (or lack thereof) of one of my childhood friends, which I learned not because he made any statements of belief per se, but rather via his complaints about having to learn Hebrew. As for the rest of everyone I went elementary school with -- we did have occasional critiques of Santa, but it never occurred to me to extol atheism because the topic of religion never came up. When I eventually learned of the great quantities of deluded people around, I had to infer that some of the kids that had never mentioned religion probably were religious, but it didn't seem important enough for me to actually ask to determine which ones. I don't think I grew up in any great rationalist enclave, maybe my school was just really serious about separation of church and state?
I share your experience.
Me neither. My daughter's going to be a test case, though.
Then I wish you luck. I hope you'll be willing to share with the community how that goes. We want to learn how to build rationalist societies, and societies start with their children.
Thanks. I certainly will. She's only 18 months, though, so it's going to be a while before the reports start flowing.