Parenting Through the Santa Claus Quandary

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cookies and milk for Santa

Hey, Whit,

Now that Christmas is over, I am thinking about next year already and how I am going to handle my dilemma about whether Santa Claus exists for my kids. On one hand, I want my twin sons, who are five years old, to enjoy Christmas the way I did when I was a kid, but on the other hand I have a problem with telling my kids a lie. My wife says that I’m being ridiculous because I wouldn’t be harming anybody by letting my sons believe in Santa Claus. That’s true, but I still have a hard time lying to them, even if it does no apparent harm. I just don’t like lying, plus, I’m not sure that it doesn’t harm them if they feel that they can’t trust me to always tell them the truth in the future.

Even though I feel that my wife has a point, I still can’t forget about the importance of being honest with my kids and any future kids. They believe in Santa Claus now, but that’s not going to last for long. What can I do?

Honesty is the Best Policy Dad

Dear Honesty:

When your kids ask you whether Santa is real, one of the best approaches is to ask them what they think. As twins they have undoubtedly been talking about it to each other. They can surprise you with an imaginative answer, especially since children love to use their imaginations. In fact, kids love to pretend so much they actually reject information that contradicts what they want to believe. For example, when my younger son was playing with his GI Joe, an older, neighborhood kid who was kind of nasty blurted that,  “GI Joe can’t really talk.” Without even looking up, my son replied, “He does if I make him.”

In a counter-intuitive way, it seems to me, you can be doing more harm than good by telling them not to believe in Santa. By squashing that impulse to fantasize and pretend (which even adults have!), you can actually be inhibiting a developing, cognitive capability, according to some brain-research.

If you allow your sons to believe in Santa Claus, you say, you believe that you would be telling a lie or perpetrating a falsehood and doing them harm. Your wife is right—you are being ridiculous! Just kidding. But she is right that you would not be harming your twins by letting them believe in Santa Claus. The legal profession has a term, cui bono, which means “who benefits?” because in the law this question or concept makes a difference in determining what is the best or most equitable decision. Even though your circumstance is moral and not legal, the principle still provides a valuable lens through which to view your problem. So, let’s examine the pros and cons of allowing the twins to believe in Santa to see if you can decide who benefits.

Would you actually be telling a lie if you said that Santa Claus exists? (see “Yes, Virgina, There is a Santa Claus.” New York Sun, 09/21/1897) When the question came up with my kids, they told me that they knew Santa was a spirit, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t real. Certainly Santa Claus exists as a spirit, no less than the spirit of community exists when people help others devastated by Hurricane Katrina, for instance.

You also say that you “don’t like lying” because, I surmise, philosophically it is inconsistent with being a moral person. However, you have to ask yourself whether that proscription has any exceptions. You worry that they “won’t trust me to always tell them the truth in the future.”  Always tell the truth? Good luck with that.

Consider the cui bono principle again in answering some questions that your twins could very easily put to you soon or later: “Did you ever love anyone before Mommy?” or assuming that you don’t get along with your mother-in-law, “Do you love Nana?”  You can count on some along these lines down the road too: “Did you ever smoke pot or get drunk?”  or the super-squirmer: “Did you have sex before you got married to Mom?” You can probably come up with some of your own, but you get my point—you are going to have to balance openness and hurtfulness.

Here is a strategy that can resolve your dilemma: If you say that Santa is a spirit that symbolizes generosity and unselfishness, you can demonstrate that spirit to your children. By behaving in a manner that is consistent with the charitable attributes you have described to them, you can live by example the kind of moral decency that you want to instill in your children and not spoil the magic. So, cui bono? You all do. Sometimes fantasy is the best policy, honestly.

Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Work? Write to Whit’s End, an advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker.  Send your questions to [email protected]

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  1. Great advice Whit! I have always maintained that ‘Santa is Christmas Spirit, doing good for others and a reminder of all that we have…so OF COURSE he’s real!’ Well does he come down the chimney? ‘What do you think?’ By the way, I use the same approach with other questions on entities where faith and idealism trump reality. This allows my children to form their own beliefs and opinions. Thank you for your commitment to tackling life’s challenges!

    • Thanks, Chris. I’m glad that you encourage your children to form their own beliefs and opinions because it creates imaginative, resourceful adults who can contribute productively to society. As I used to tell my kids and students, “You will find hardly anyone who is willing to pay you to ask somebody else how you should do your job.”

  2. I really worried about the Santa thing when my kids were small. My kids seemed to handle it on their own . But the “what do you think?” approach I have used to great effect on other thorny questions

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