It's that time of year again, where parents all over the Christian world tell their kids that a fat man who watches their behavior closely all year long will be breaking into the house in the middle of the night, and leaving gifts based on how good or bad they have been. It's a terrifying proposition, and a lie which we spread not just to our own kids, but to any kid who still trusts adults to tell the truth. And psychiatrists, writing in a new essay published in the Lancet Psychiatry say it's a terrible idea.
Why do we lie to children about Santa? Psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay, from the University of Exeter in the U.K., suggest that we do it out of a desire to return to our childhood, a time where magic was possible. And in fact Christmas isn't the only time we co-opt our children's activities to help us relive our own childhood fantasies. "Adults taking their children to a Star Wars convention as cover to dress up as Han Solo or Princess Leia is a fairly common occurrence," write Boyle and McKay.
What effect do these lies have on kids? Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, argues that such fairly tales "may cause children to lack creativity," but at the same time the Santa myth gives kids a valuable lesson: Not everything adults tell them is true.
And looked at objectively, the Santa myth is quite terrifying. Boyle and McKay again:
It is a method of discipline used by many adults that gains momentum closer to Christmas Day. In a mythology more recently augmented in North America by the ever-vigilant 'Elf on the Shelf', it is made clear that no child can hide from the North Pole’s National Security Agency-style vigilance—an altogether terrifying thing when considered as an adult. Who among us could claim constant goodness if watched at all times?
One of the most interesting parts of the whole Santa myth is just how elaborate our tricks are, and how transparent the whole mythos becomes when really examined. We spend a lot of time tricking children into believing in fairytale creatures: we put coins under their pillows to teach them that they can sell body parts for cash, and we leave out cookies for Santa. But we also spend time convincing our kids that there aren't any monsters under the bed. Thankfully, the question of whether a reindeer might prefer a carrot over a cookie never seems to come up.
Perhaps the most damaging part of the Santa lie is when the kids, who are naturally skeptical, and have only been convinced of Santa's existence by yearly bribes and constant fabrication, start to realize that Santa isn't real. "Children must all find out eventually that their parents have blatantly and consistently carried on a lie for a number of years," say Boyle and McKay. "If adults have been lying about Santa, even though it has usually been well intentioned, what else is a lie?"
Should we, then, tell kids about this lie? Perhaps it will be healthier in the long term, but humans rarely do things because they will be better for us in the long term. We prefer quick gratification, and seeing the excitement of your children when they're expecting a visit from Santa is pretty much the best Christmas gift a parent could get.