Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Santa: To Tell or Not To Tell

[Johnathan Clayborn]
Today’s entry is by special request. One of my friends and readers wrote in requesting that I do an article about the ethical implications involved with lying to your children, even if it is about Santa Claus. I could tell where he stood on the issue by the tone of his message; he thinks that telling children that the big, red-man exists is bad and creates an ethical dilemma. After all, you are lying to children, so how do you get them to trust you after that? I have been telling my own kids about Santa, but I do see his point. It made me wonder if there were any studies conducted on the subject and what the “court of public opinion” believes. And, with any luck, we’ll be able to put that debate at the family get-togethers to rest.
I will start off by saying that after reading his message it induced a moment of nostalgia. I vividly remembered when I first learned the truth. It was second grade. Like my friend, my 2nd grade teacher felt that it was ethically reprehensible to lie for any reason. Because of her beliefs she informed our entire second grade class that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. To say that she had a classroom full of very upset little children would be an understatement. Interestingly, I remember being angry with my teacher for breaking “the spell” of Santa, and I remember wondering why my parents would tell me about Santa if he wasn’t real. Was it some joke that I wasn’t part of? What was the point? Despite the unfortunate manner in which I learned the truth I just came to accept that it was just something that adults did.
It is with these thoughts and experiences as a backdrop that I began my research. I wanted to keep an open mind about this topic and gather the information as objectively as possible. Human history is full of make-believe beings; leprechauns, fairies, gnomes, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and all manner of monsters and demons. There are Jedi and Sith lords, time-travelling robots, and even aliens from outer space. The most obvious and most common form of creating these lies is for entertainment purposes. They are used in story telling sometimes as a metaphor, or a symbol, or as an archetypal character to represent a particular type of person. The difference here is that in literature and movies these other stories are understood to be make believe right from the start. So, the question really becomes; is lying to your children about Santa harmful to their emotional well-being? Is it unethical?
Interestingly enough, the question of Santa came up in the ethics class that I am currently taking. There were essentially two schools of thought on this topic. The first group, a very small margin, felt that it was ethically improper to tell their children lies about Santa Claus. Of course, I should also add that this person’s reasoning was that “Jesus would be mad that you’re assisting your children in worshipping a false idol”. They seemed to have the ethical quandary of lying about Santa confused with a moral dilemma of whether hyping up Santa at Christmas constitutes worship.
The second group felt that it was okay to lie to your children about Santa. However, this group was also divided into two camps as well. Half of this group felt that there was absolutely nothing wrong with it whatsoever. They wrote things like “it encourages young children’s imaginations” and that it “served as a vessel for passing along traditions and values”.  The other group, which I admittedly was part of, felt that it did constitute a breach of ethics in the strictest sense of the definition, but that the end justified the means. Sure, a lie is ethically improper, however in most cases ethics and morals are not resolute, concrete ideologies that are unyielding in principal. I’m willing to bet that I can pose several scenarios in which you would likely violate your own moral or ethical code in some way or another.
Having exhausted my search of materials in class relating to this topic, I turned my search to other resources. My first bid was to go to the all-knowing, all-powerful internet. While information gleaned off of the internet should always be taken with a grain of salt I do find it a good starting point for some of my other resources. In my search on the internet I Googled the phrase Santa Claus Ethics. The results of this search immediately convinced me that my friend is not alone in his view of Santa. 
One interesting site that I found is a blog called Pea Soup. The blog itself is a huge site with dozens of contributors and focuses exclusively on ethics, philosophy and academia. While this particular entry by Heath White was rather short, it sparked an internet debate when it first appeared 2 years ago. Dozens upon dozens of further articles popped up all over the internet in response to White’s post, and dozens more popped up in response to those responses. White opposed the proliferation of the Santa Claus myth. He argues that it’s immoral (which it may be to him, but the question is whether or not it’s ethical, and yes, there is a difference). White argues that the Santa myth has, at least, three strikes against it.
1.       It involves a lot of lying and deception practiced on credulous people.
2.       It tends to foster greed in children and contributes to the notion that happiness equates to the material wealth that you possess.
3.       By telling children that the gifts that Santa brings them are tied to their behavior it further undermines their personal growth. Especially since the gifts that a child receives are not the result of the child’s behavior, but rather are the result of the family’s socio-economic standing and parental temperament. This tends to breed moral complacency in well-off children and false feelings of moral inferiority in less well-off children.
One of the more prominent and immediate responses appeared on the blog Love of All Wisdom. The author here counter’s White’s points Vis-à-vis. The author here, Amod Lele, raises some interesting counter-points to White’s claims. He argues that White’s first point should be invalidated because it paints a bleak picture of humanity if children only know the truth and never pretend or make believe. He says “One can tell children stories they will understand, long before they understand the difference between myth and reality. Is this a lie? Perhaps, but one shudders before the implications of an account of truth so unflinching and demanding that it requires all children’s stories be clearly marked as false and fictional.”  He further goes on to describe such an existence as cold. As a parent, I’ll admit that there are certain things that I’ve told my child that weren’t entirely true. For example; there’s some kind of chemical processing plant near our house. On the premises of this plant are two tall silver spires of pipe of different heights. They look to be some kind of giant pressure valves or boilers, or something of that nature. In truth, I have no idea what these things are. I’m not even sure what chemical is processed there. So, when my son asked me what they are I told him that I didn’t know. And then he told me that they were rocket ships. To this day they’re still rocket ships. He’s 5 and he can get a lot of concepts, but explaining that it’s some kind of equipment that has to do with pressurized processing of a chemical is not likely something that he’s going to understand at his age. So, I let it go until he’s older and can understand such concepts.
Lele’s agrees with White’s second point. He’s also indifferent on White’s third point as well. The one thing that he does admit is that in order for the Santa-Behavior myth to carry any real weight behind it parents would actually have to follow through on their threats on not give gifts to children who genuinely are naughty. However, as he points out, most parents lack the capacity for this or are so blinded by their love for their children that they overlook their transgressions and misdeeds.
Some argue that the Santa-behavior myth teaches children to be good by providing rewards for desired behavior, a-la B. F. Skinner. However, as any good psychologist will tell you, providing one gift annually based an abstract average of overall behavior is not consistent or frequent enough to have any lasting effect on a child’s long-term development. Some psychologists argue that one reward per week might be too long of a delay, particularly in very young children. 
One thing that also seemed to come up in all of the discussions that I found was the concept or notion of tradition. Most people know that Santa Claus as we know him today has existed for quite a while. In my earlier post on some holiday myths I pointed out some of the different tales and traditions which make up the modern Santa. The question that is hotly debated here is “how do you separate out the traditions from the lies?”
Many people, myself included, are on the fence about it. It is technically a lie, yes, but it seems as though it’s a culturally accepted one and one that has good arguments from both sides of the issue. Many more people don’t even give the issue a second thought.
One interesting side-question as I press on. I did come across one blog where the author was writing about a response to a NY Times article. The commenter asked “if you’re a child and you figure out that there’s no such thing as Santa, is it unethical to continue to play along in the hopes of getting more presents?” An interesting question, to be sure. Certainly, that would support the argument that belief in Santa promotes greed. But, could they also not say something to their parents as a means of retaliating? ie: You lied to me that he existed in the first place, so I’m going to lie to you by saying that I still believe. Is that ethical for either party?
One blogger over at Philosophy, etc. argued that the proliferation of the Santa Claus myth isn’t really a lie because children are able to discern the difference. They cite a few cognitive psychologists who suggest that children know all along and they’re just playing the game with us. I vociferously disagree. Over time they may figure it out and elect to play along, however, if you are a small child and you are suddenly told that there is not a Santa after years of believing it can be quite a traumatic experience. And it’s not as though this is just a few harmless tales that are easy to disbelieve in, it’s a world-wide conspiracy. You have department stores telling your children that Santa is real, internet websites where you can video-chat with Santa, major newspapers writing stories about Santa’s exploits. I mean, if it’s in the news it has to be true, right? And let’s not forget the US Government helps perpetuate this myth. What I am talking about? The US Military’s NORAD tracks Santa website, of course. They even have a page called “Is Santa Real?” where they neither confirm nor deny his existence. However, they also provide a video and an interactive map that shows Santa’s progress across the globe on Christmas Eve. This isn’t just some small white lie that you tell your friends “no man, that shirt doesn’t make you look stupid”, this is a large, elaborate lie that goes on for weeks and months and years by almost everyone.
Another interesting blog that I read was called Philosophy Dad in which the author counters six points in favor of lying to your children about Santa. Here are the six points in favor of lying, according to Steven Law:
1.       It makes them Happy
2.       Educational Fibbing
3.       Gives them something to believe in
4.       Fun for adults
5.       Useful for controlling behavior
6.       Protects children from upsetting or damaging truths
Now, I could write out Philosophy Dad’s responses to these, but you can read them on his blog (that’s why I put the links below…) So, instead I’ll post my opinions on these points.
Yes, it does make children happy, at least in the short term. And, I think that this is the reason that most people convince themselves that this lie is okay. I know that’s certainly true in my case. The one thing that I would be willing to bet is never considered; does this belief in Santa make them happier at Christmas time than they would be if they didn’t believe?
Steven Law suggests that lying to them deliberately about things like this can teach them to become better “truth detectors”. He further goes on to quantify that “educational fibbing” isn’t quite lying, that it’s more of a practical joke. I disagree with him here. First, to me, educational fibbing would be a lie to explain a naturally made situation. For example: Where do babies come from? The storks bring them. That is an educational fib. It’s a lie that’s told to children about a real-life situation because they’re too young to understand the answer. However, in the case of Santa, he’s entirely fictitious. As such, telling lies about Santa does not, in my mind constitute an “educational fib”. And, as I pointed out a moment ago, this is one world-wide conspiracy that’s embedded into every facet of our culture. It’s way deeper than a joke…unless you count what the robots were doing to the humans in the movie the Matrix as a joke (completely replacing their reality with a made up one), in which case it’s hilarious. A “fun joke” would be the government taking your Social Security Money, and make you believe that there is a Social Security fund, only to tell you when you really need it that there’s no such thing as Social Security. That’s fun, and totally harmless right? No one gets angry over that. Why should kids be any different?
Yes, everyone needs something to believe in and hope is a powerful thing. However, why must all of these beliefs and hopes be extrinsic? Why can’t we teach children to believe in themselves for a change?
Okay, yes. It is fun for adults. However, just because it’s fun does that make it ethically correct? I’m sure that President Clinton found his rendezvous with Ms. Lewinski to be “fun”, but that certainly wasn’t ethical.
Number 5 just baffles me. It’s useful for controlling behavior? Granted, I’m not arguing that children shouldn’t behave themselves, we live in a civilized world. However, there are many tools for controlling their behavior. The most effective is: teach them to control their own behavior. It’s a novel concept, I know, it is years ahead of its time. All joking aside, this is like rationalizing that it’s okay to lie to people so that we can get them to act how we want them to act or to do what we want them to do. It’s a good thing the government hasn’t adopted that philosophy.
The last point seems the weakest to me. Sure, telling someone that there is a Santa and getting them to believe in it and then telling them later that there is no Santa is potentially damaging. However, not telling them about Santa at all isn’t damaging in any way. If they’ve never been told that there is a Santa, then the truth won’t be damaging at all because they’ve never been deceived. It's the deception that is damaging, the act of finding out that you've been betrayed, not the truth in and of itself.
Some blog-readers comment that it’s basically okay to lie to children since they don’t understand it anyway. If that’s the case my question back is “at what point do you tell them truth?” If you’ve been lying to them because they don’t understand and you can get away with it, do you automatically own-up as soon as they do understand, or do you keep the lie going?
Some other readers suggest that explaining the myth of Santa is fine, however, actively engaging in the Santa pretense is a different matter altogether. Another reader points out that a child psychologist says that it’s a rite of passage for children to learn the truth about Santa after believing in him. His argument is that this helps children understand that the world can be a place full of lies and misinformation and that they shouldn’t take everything at face value. It introduces them to the concept of the lie in the first place. While I see his point, I’m not entirely convinced that this is the most effective way of accomplishing that task.
One angry reader on Pea Soup wrote “Are you kidding me?? Santa is just a fun part of Christmas. No, he is not the essence of Christmas. That would be Jesus Christ as we celebrate His coming as the true reason of Christmas.”  He goes on to say that the author is on the wrong soapbox and that they should be preaching against TV and Radio. But I digress, this is news to me. I had always thought that the “true meaning of Christmas” was for the Roman Catholic Church to make an official holiday coincide with the pagan Winter Solstice festival so that it was easier to convert them. Weird. Also, to this person I would pose this question; if the essence of Christmas is about Christ, then why do many Christmas traditions pre-date Christianity? And what about non-Christians who celebrate Christmas? To say that the responses to these articles are varied from the sane and polite to the downright rude and facetious is a bit of an understatement. For example; one reader responded by saying that we should just ban all fictional works of all types. Clearly, he is missing the point entirely.
As I read through these things I am reminded of a topic for a future discussion, but one that I’ll touch on here. Is it right or ethical for us as adults to force our worldview and our beliefs onto our children because we think it’s in their best interests? There are some adults that I know that absolutely will not believe certain things no matter how much evidence that you throw at them. And they will get literally upset with you if you shatter some of their other illusions (such the fact that humans are genetically descended from common ancestors with apes). What if kids are the same way? What if they really want to believe and we rob them of that? Is that just as much of a disservice to their well-being as lying and then telling the truth later?
I tried researching actual bona fide research journals to see what the “experts” had to say on the matter. There were some arguments that pointed out that parents who act out the roles of Santa have parallels to fetishism, ambivalence and narcissism. There was also an article that used the term “Santa Claus” in reference to make-believe political bills whose concepts are so unrealistic that they will never work. The one thing that I did not find was any kind of empirical evidence to support this debate one way or the other. There are absolutely no studies that offer up concrete proof that this is or isn’t healthy for our children. For now, this debate seems destined to remain in the realm of the theoretical.

Note: There are quite a lot of interesting responses both for and against this on the various blogs that I posted below. If this is one that interests you then I encourage you to read through them.

Grand Canyon University: Philosophy 305 – Ethical Thinking in the Liberal Arts. Module 2. Prof. Scott Douglas.
Cluley, Robert (2011) The organization of Santa: fetishism, ambivalence and narcissism. The Journal of Organization. Nov, 18, 2011. Vol 18. No. 6 Pgs. 779-794. Retrieved from Sage Online.

No comments:

Post a Comment

These blogs represent my thoughts, ideas and opinions. They may be different from yours. You may not agree with them. While I do enjoy a good, polite debate on a topic (where points are countered with other points based on logic, reason and fact), I do not enjoy an argument (where you tell me that I am wrong simply because you disagree and cannot offer any reasons to support your position). I am very respectful of others, and I expect everyone on here to be respectful in return, not only to me, but to each other as well. Disrespectful posts will be deleted automatically. Feel free to share your ideas, but keep it civil, please.