On Telling Your Child “Santa Claus is/n’t real.”

“If you teach children to believe in magic, then they grow into adults who believe in astrology and homeopathy.” —Sheldon Cooper

Another child at school must have told me that Santa wasn’t real, because it was after a school day, in the car with my mother who had just picked me up and was now pulling into our driveway, that I asked her the truth about St. Nick’s existence. She evaded the question. Then I knew.

The betrayal a child feels on learning his or her parents have been the direct perpetrators of a lie is flooring. There is first a period in which to grasp the reality of the lie and that the primary fabricator of one’s reality (i.e., the parent in question) is capable of it. Then comes the idea that the parent can’t be trusted in other things. What else is she lying about? The crew of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, love them though I do, have tried to justify this as a means of introducing skepticism in a child’s life. However, there is a vast difference between deliberately lying to your child and encouraging them to explore an uncertainty. For example, if your child comes home having learned that there is no such thing as a brontosaurus (whether he or she misunderstands what the teacher might have actually said), contrary a book you gifted or a conversation you shared, it is an opportunity to research the topic in which you would both discover that “Brontosaurus” is a depreciated name. If you were honestly ignorant of the change, then by admitting that ignorance and promising to use the proper name “Apatosaurus” instead, you have shown your child not only that you can be wrong, but how to handle correction with humility and a drive for education. By contrast, in telling your child a baldfaced lie one year and evading or sugarcoating it the next, your child learns that manipulating the gullible for one’s own pleasure is okay.

Let’s face it: the pleasure is the parents’ more than the child’s. The idea that parents shouldn’t deprive children their sense of wonderment is little more than another evasive excuse. A child will enjoy a toy no less if he or she thinks it’s from Mom or Dad than from Santa. A child does not feel resentment toward the parent who has been consistently honest. (My experience disinclines me to make the same claim for those who have not.) Most importantly, a child’s “wonderment” is—thankfully—not confined to the mythological fat man who only appears in malls after Thanksgiving. If we are skeptics, and if we are raising our children to be skeptics, then we are already introducing them to science and all the wonderment that comes with it. The sense of mystery, curiosity, and fascination are not lost in its exploration. Rather they are enhanced by it. Best of all, these forces do not disappear with the proverbial loss of innocence. The tinkering, toying, and drive to discover are better fuel for the inner child that persists through life than all the artificial staging of one day each out of a few short years.

If you still find it difficult not to allow your child to buy into the myth, particularly with all the pomp and circumstance put on by our culture, just imagine that you are preparing them for short intervals in their adult lives where they will be surrounded by other adults in unflattering costumes speaking of fiction with all the urgency and tenacity of a pressing political debate and singing ridiculous anthems off key: sci-fi and fantasy conventions.

Live long and prosper.

edit 01/16/2012: Added the quote up top, shared from a friend of mine.

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