Last night as I was tucking my elder two children into bed, my five-year-old son – a scientist in the making, asked which planet had the most gravity – Jupiter or Mars. Happily placated with the answer (Jupiter in case you’re interested), he started to snuggle his bear before following that up with, ‘Mummy, we must remember to make the magic flying muesli for the reindeer.’ He’d gone from hard facts to fantasy in the same sentence.
Normally this leap of faith wouldn’t have bothered me, but as I was in the process of writing this feature, I suddenly experienced a jolt of guilt; on the one hand I was helping him develop his knowledge, his sense of the world and how things work, and on the other I was an implicit participant in possibly the biggest conspiracy theory of all time.
The trouble is, we’re big on Christmas myths in our house, not content with a half-chewed carrot and some mince pie crumbs, my husband and I will be spending Christmas Eve following Santa’s progress across the world on Norad, sprinkling glitter into Alpen for the magic flying food, making hoof-shaped imprints in fake snow, forging notes using elaborate looped handwriting, and generally patting ourselves on the back for creating such a wonderful magical Christmas for our children. But apparently, according to American psychologist David Kyle Johnson, this makes us bad parents. We are liars, we are cheats and we are setting our children up for an adulthood filled with unease, trust issues and ill-motivated behaviour.
Are we damaging trust?
One of the most outspoken advocates of eliminating Santa from Christmas, Johnson maintains that perpetuating these myths “cruelly takes advantage of the child’s naivety and possibly hinders his or her intellectual development.” He adds in a blog post, Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie, which went viral, that allowing this belief to continue, we risk damaging our parental trustworthiness, which I can sort of understand. Who’s to say that my son won’t start questioning the gravitational pull of Jupiter in a few years time because I lied about the big man in red, leading him to wonder what else I fabricated?
The topic of lying to children is a murky one. Therese Sequeira, parent educator at The Parenting Place at Kids First Medical Centre says that lying to children is not uncommon and is frequently used in various contexts, often when parents feel they are not in control of a situation. “‘Junk food is poison and you shouldn’t put poison in your body’; ‘Stop fighting or I’ll call the police’; ‘You’d better come now or I’ll leave you here’; ‘You can go and live with another family/I’ll send you to an orphanage’. All of these statements are big lies – the majority of parents are unlikely to do any of these and they are much more damaging to children than believing in a mythical figure who shows kindness to children once a year.”
Dubai-based Pooja Bhargava, who has a PhD in Child Development agrees. “There’s an implicit difference between lies and fantasy. In my own Indian culture, we have a very strong mythological culture, and many stories about different beings and figures are relayed to children every day. These play an important role in developing a strong sense of culture and belonging and enriching a child’s environment.”
We are the judges on how much information we drip-feed our children, and the key to developing trust between parent and child is to allow them the space to work things out for themselves and for them to develop a natural sense of credulity.
How we handle the moment when they stop believing in Saint Nick is crucial. Around the age of eight to 10 is when a child’s critical thinking develops and by answering their questions like they’ve solved a game is the best course to take to try to minimise any feelings of hurt or anger at being tricked. ‘You figured it out! What were your clues?’ and ‘You solved the mystery! How did you work it out?’ Give them a nudge and a wink and tell them that they’re now grown up enough to be ‘in on the secret’ and can now be a storyteller of the myth themselves.
A question of discipline
There’s another side though to the Santa Claus concept though, and it involves him making a list and checking it twice. Ten years ago, American mother-daughter team Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell developed the idea of a ‘scout elf’ sent by Santa to check on the good behaviour of children in the lead-up to Christmas. The Elf on the Shelf is essentially a snitch. A spy. A grass. And he’s currently lying in a box under my bed as I try to make up my mind whether to bring him out this year. The level of good behaviour that would come from having this slightly creepy looking figure sitting on a bookcase would, quite frankly, be unprecedented. A friend of mine, who has no intention of parting with her elf says, “Toys are tidied up, a fight over the last cookie ends with a magnanimous, “no please, after you,” and the words ‘OK, kids, bedtime’ is met with a rapid lining up at the bottom of the stairs. Why wouldn’t you invest in one of these miracle workers?”
Well, for quite a few reasons as it turns out. Instilling good discipline is about engaging in children’s positive behaviours, by building trust and communicating effectively, and lying to children as a way of coercing them into practising ‘good behaviour’ doesn’t do any of that.
Parent educator Therese says, “Regarding Elf on the Shelf, if they are used as visitors who explore the homes they are staying in, then that’s one thing, but if the Elf is being used as a ‘tattle tale’, then he would not be welcome in my home. How boring!
“It’s important for parents to encourage good behaviour in their children through spending time with them, talking to them, offering praise, having fun, having shared experiences. So having an object supposedly report children’s ‘bad behaviour’ is very negative and no fun at all.” Call it blackmail or bribery, but being rewarded is part of life – as a child and as an adult. You perform well at your job – here’s a bonus. You continually use a certain store or airline – well thank you madam, here are some loyalty points. But, conversely, developing consistent, year-round parenting techniques is what we’re all aiming for. Children need to learn to do the right thing because it’s right, not because of what they’re going to get.
Pooja says, “The practice of rewarding good behaviour with anything other than praise is a temporary technique that results in instant gratification. You get results, but they vanish quickly. Children need to develop a strong internal moral structure, where they know what is right or wrong, not learn to behave in a certain way because of what they’re going to get from it.”
So maybe we need to change the language of Christmas, and in turn the whole point of Santa, not only to appease our guilt, but also to help our children position health and happiness above the new X-box. Pooja suggests, “Rather than using the words ‘good or bad’ or ‘naughty or nice’, say instead, ‘Santa is happy when he sees happy children’.”
Dr Rose Logan, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, told me, “Santa as a tradition and as a festive ritual is often one of the fondest memories we have from childhood and each family develops their own ritual around it. For many parents, lying is not something they will tolerate in their children so we must be sensitive in how we communicate such stories to them. A way that allows the magic to grow but does not violate our own beliefs or rules around lying. ”
So I’ve decided the elf is staying in its box, but the fake snow, glittery muesli and painstakingly written notes from Santa will stay. Because in our house, Santa is not giving presents because you’ve been good, he’s doing so because giving is what life is all about.