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"?
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!
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!
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
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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?
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.
Raise them many-worlds.
I am opposed to the Santa Claus myth, mostly because I hate lying.
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)
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.
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)