The unexpected challenges of parenting and believing in Santa

Friday, December 2nd, 2016

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Right now, both my kids believe in Santa, but to different degrees.

One of them believes in him in a kind of “meh, whatever, I’ll write letters or whatever and watch movies, but I don’t have too deep an attachment to the idea,” way. One of them believes so strongly, not only in him, but also in the North Pole, in Elf on the Shelf and on and on, that she can develop explanations for everything that happens around her. She can send her mind to a magical world where I assume David Blaine holds some high form of government office. As a parent, it is something to behold.

Neither one of these views is more right or more desired, they are what they are.

Now, about me. I do not remember having a moment when I learned Santa was not real. This secret was never outed, nothing traumatic ever happened to me. As far as I can remember, I eventually just kind of knew, but never felt the need to ask for clarification. I don’t know that any of us ever had “the moment.” I don’t think Santa is a real person and still I have written three 50,000 word stories about me being Santa. I like the idea of being excited about Santa, that is putting it mildly. And, I like the idea of my kids being excited too.

I can tell you that propagating the Santa idea as a parent is not what I expected it to be.

Talking about Santa and writing letters to Santa and even writing back to my kids as Santa has been amazing. I like setting up our elf every night and I like talking with my daughters about what the North Pole would be like. I like cuddling watching The Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and I like setting out milk and cookies together on Christmas Eve.

But I also feel incredibly guilty and I also feel incredibly scared. I wonder how exactly my daughters will find out. I think about what my responsibility is around building trust with them. And I worry that I’m overthinking things and that letting them experience Santa how they want to is just fine.

They don't care. Christmas is awesome.

The power, good and bad, of belief

I don’t find the ability to believe a sign of lower intelligence. I don’t worry that because my daughter believes in Santa she must be prone to lies and deceit. The daughter who believes in Santa is great at math, loves science experiments, reads all night long, knows about the reproductive system. She is a brilliant child, who also believes in Santa and will defend that when presented with opposing views.

I think it takes an incredibly creative mind to believe in things as strongly as my daughter does. It requires the ability to conjure up worlds that you don’t see and situations that you’ve never yet imagined. You get to challenge what you see in front of you and challenge your mind to see what isn’t there. Belief is a very beautiful thing to have.

But, belief without a will to understand more, can also be extremely dangerous. Making choices based on what one believes to be factual biblical stories, the willingness to believe news stories without stopping to see what sources are, and denying the scientific evidence that we are destroying our planet just a few of many are everyday examples of how blind belief can lead to hate, racism, sexism, the destruction on where we live and on and on.

Social media and the proliferation of fake news sites has made managing traditional make-believe situation more difficult to manage. A tooth fairy is no longer just a tooth fairy, Santa is no longer just Santa. They are now opportunities to talk about what it means to believe in something versus what it means to make sure we don’t use beliefs to discriminate.

It is the ability to permanently suspend reality that can lead to discriminatory lines of thinking.


How do parents carry these stories and teach their kids to be critical?

I read stories every day on how we are becoming less and less dependent on fact-based material as we make decision in our lives. A recent election has appeared to be the greatest example of how willing we are to accept news as long as it says what we want it to say. As mentioned earlier, climate change denial is another such example. If we want to blindly believe things, there are plenty of sites out there who will help us do so.

We prepare our kids for the world we see developing more than we prepare them for what has passed. So, is there a way to have kids believing in Santa while also teaching them the importance of researching facts?

Probably. We teach them about the concepts of consent from the time they are young. We should be able to teach critical thinking while still allowing them to hold these magical views too.

And this is where I struggle as a parent to hold firm on the Santa story. We have chosen not to lie to our kids. We do not say Santa is real but rather let them decide for themselves. This is how I think I shaped my own identity for Santa. Never quite believing he was real but never suggesting I didn’t want to believe.

So if our kids ask if Santa is real, we ask what they think. If they come to use saying they don’t think our elf is real, we tell them that’s a fine belief to have.

Our other daughter has even said that she doesn’t believe the elf is real but her sister does so she plays along because it makes her happy.

She seems to have found the middle ground we’d like to find. Such is the balancing act we are playing right now.

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