Lying about Santa

[Repeat of an earlier post - as it's especially relevant tonight]

Suppose I visit the wife and seven year old daughter of a colleague who has recently died. Now it turns out that the wife is a Christian, and she has told her daughter that her Daddy is now living in heaven with God and the angels. This is very comforting belief for both the wife and the little girl. Daddy hasn’t gone for ever. He’s merely moved to somewhere very nice, somewhere that they too will go in the end.

Now I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any sort of after-life. Suppose that this little girl asks me whether I believe in heaven. What do I say? Do I tell her the truth or do I lie?

Of course, if you happen to believe in God and the angels, you can tell comfortably tell her the truth about what you believe. But if, like me, you don’t believe in any of that, you find yourself facing a dilemma. Do you lie?

I would avoid telling her the truth if I could, perhaps by changing the subject. But I don’t think I could lie. I don’t think I could tell her I believed in God and heaven when I don’t. Even if the result of my not lying is that it shakes her own confidence in her belief.

Which at first sight is very odd, because if she were to ask me whether I believed in Santa and the elves living at the North Pole, I’ll happily lie. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to embellish the fib – by helping her put out Santa’s mince pie and Rudolph’s carrot at bedtime, and then leaving bite-marks in the mince pie and gnawing the carrot once she’s gone to bed.

But if she asks me whether I believe in God and Heaven, I would find it very difficult to tell her what I consider to be a fib. Despite the fact that this little girl derives an extraordinary amount of comfort, and even some happiness, from that lie. Far more, in fact, than she derives from the fib about Santa and the Elves.

Doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? Aren’t I operating with a blatant double standard? I’ll go out of my way to lie about Santa and the Elves. Yet I turn into Mr Principle when it comes to lying about God and the angels.

Well, may be not. As children grow up, we create illusory worlds for them to inhabit: little bubbles of deceit. One of these bubbles of belief is about goblins and fairies, another is about Santa and Rudolph. These bubbles soon pop, of course, We can’t sustain them into adult life. But, while they last, they are charming fantasies.

The trouble with the religious bubble, from the point of view of most atheists, is that it doesn’t always pop. Many of us continue to inhabit it throughout our entire lives. And it can dramatically shape our lives, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

Six arguments for lying to children

1. Educational fibbing. My daughter and I often tell each other fibs. I say, “Did you know that there are fairies living under our garden shed?” To which she responds, but Daddy, why can’t we see them?” To which I answer, “They only come out at night.” To which she says “But then how do you know they are there?” and so on. The more we play this sort of game, the better she gets at figuring out when she’s being lied to.

Lying games are good way of showing children that, armed with nothing more than their own power of reason, they can often figure out what’s true for themselves.

Educational fibbing games can help them develop some intellectual and emotional maturity. They won’t be afraid to think or ask a question. It gives them a course in self-defence that will come in very handy when they are confronted by the corporate, religious and other psychological manipulators and snake-oil salesmen later on.

If we want our children to grow into good truth-detectors, these are the sort of skills we need then to acquire.

2. It makes them happy.

3. Gives them an appreciation of what it’s like to be a true believer. Even after the bubble of belief has burst, the memory of what it was like to inhabit it – to really believe - lingers on. The adult who never knew that is perhaps kind of missing out.

4. And we can vicariously enjoy their pleasure. Having children around who believe in Santa transforms Christmas – you can half inhabit their kitsch fantasy world for a few days.

5. Useful for controlling behaviour. “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who's naughty and nice”. Santa is watching what you are doing even when Mummy and Daddy are not.

6. “Protecting” them from potentially upsetting or damaging truths.

Three arguments against lying to children

1. They will learn not to trust you. Crying wolf – won’t believe you when it really matters.

2. We are teaching them that lying is acceptable.

3. We can instill false beliefs that may hurt them later in life.

NB I merely present these arguments - I don't necessarily endorse them. And, incidentally, some of the lies we tell we don’t ourselves properly register as lies:

• “You can be anything you want to be!” (cobblers, of course)
• “Looks don’t matter!" (perhaps they shouldn't, but they do)


Rob A said…
Stephen, have you seen this

"Pants on Fire Parenting"

and this
"More Lying" ?

Merry Christmas!
Stephen Law said…
No I missed those - thanks for pointing them out. Also the sesond one seems to think I am endorsing all the args for, which I wasn't, just listing them as popular arguments....

Happy holidays!
anticant said…
surely one thing you could say to the little girl is "Some people believe there is a God and a Heaven, and some people don't. I am one of those who don't, but I could be wrong."
Muddy Funster said…
I remember as a child being rather confused about the whole Father Christmas thing (the presents were under the tree, then they were at the North Pole, then they came back again - all seemed somewhat inefficient!). No desire to similarly confuse my own children. I'll keep saying "it's a very nice story" till the penny drops.

When they're older, I might explain to them that "God" might refer to something useful (depending on how you define it) but will give anticant's comment on heaven above.
Lu said…
I think about this too and find it a very useful parallel. I also would not lie if asked about my own beliefs (would probably say I don't believe in heaven or god, but would not comment on her idea that her father is somewhere safe and happy.)
I also would not lie about Santa, though, but would rather ask questions about what she believes to be true.
Obviously, the difference is, as you pointed out, that the Santa bubble bursts during teen age. Were it not to, I would absolutely not lie about it. If her mother still believed in Santa, I would try to distance myself from that kind of thinking just as much as I would from the belief in God and heavens.
Andrew Louis said…
As a theist, with a 3 1/2 and a 6 year old, I must say I do keep God-talk away from them. Neiher of them are baptised, and I don't plan on putting them in church while they're young.

I took me years to purge out all the fundie bullsht, and a few more to gain a new understanding of it back. I don't want my kids to have to go through that. Essentially, I don't want them dogmatized as I was for many years.
Brian said…
Stephen, I think one reason for being honest about it is that believe someone who has not died, but is still alive at some other place and is awaiting is that it subverts the greiving process.
Brian said…
I must say, my previous comment is unintelligible. I wrote it while being sober no less.

To restate, to believe that someone who has died, hasn't died (i.e. they've gone to heaven, Valhalla, nirvana, etc) is to put a difficulty in the grieving process. I don't mean the false, anger, denial, la de la, process of 5 stages that the media propagates. I mean we all grieve differently, but it is the process by which we deal with the obvious fact that humans die. They don't later undie which we know. So to say someone has died, but hasn't is a big impasse to a normal process.
Ophelia Benson said…
I have to say, I actively resented the whole lying about Santa thing when I was a child. I resented having been told a flat lie with a straight face, over a period of years - I resented having been fooled. I also remember once engaging in a little theological reasoning by analogy: Santa Claus seems just as weird and unlikely as God but Santa Claus is real so God could be real too. I think this fact (the fact that I'd had the thought) augmented my resentment later.