Why Secular Parents Should Do the Santa Thing

Does it seem a bit weird to talk about Santa in July? Probably. But that's the chapter of my book I'm working on at the moment, so that's the subject you're getting today. My apologies in advance! I'm not sure how many of you have read Parenting Beyond Belief, edited (and partially written) by Dale McGowan, but it's considered sort of a must-read in some nonreligious parenting circles. The essay-driven collection is a hodgepodge of ideas set forth by famous and not-so-famous atheist/agnostic parents on a whole range of topics.

My favorite bit in the book is offered by McGowan himself on the subject of the whether secular families who celebrate Christmas should engage in the Santa myth with their children. McGowan's bit was offered as a counterpoint to an essay by Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism who in 1993 wrote The Trouble With Christmas — a book that no-doutedly helped fuel the overhyped, so-called "War on Christmas" controversy. Flynn's Parenting Beyond Belief essay (which can be read here) is called "Put the Claus Away" and lays out five main arguments against letting kids believe in Santa.

1. To perpetuate the Santa myth, parents must lie to their kids. 2. To buoy belief, adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the child's developing intellect. 3. The myth encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear. 4. The myth makes kids more acquisitive, not less so. 5. The myth appears to exploit age-appropriate cognitive patterns that religious children use in forming their ideas of God.

Although I think there's a whole lot of exaggeration in this list, his first and second points are the same ones I struggled with about the time my daughter hit her second birthday. Is it okay to lie to my kid when it's all in "good fun?" And, if so, how much lying is too much lying? After all, "letting her believe" is not the same as "encouraging her to believe," which is not the same as "insisting she believe." Yet all of these include some level of deception. Can I justify deception? Or has this whole lying thing gotten blow way out of proportion?

I explored this issue a bit — and fielded some great comments — back in February, with a post called Honesty, Schmonesty: When Did Lying to Kids Get Such a Bad Wrap? I don't think I mentioned it at the time, but my thoughts on this were affected by a mother who wrote a blog post on coming clean about the Tooth Fairy before her son was ready. As she says in her post, the boy already had suspected that Mommy was the Tooth Fairy and was having fun collecting "evidence" and "investigating" his suspicions. But when this blogger revealed the truth (although cryptically) before he had fully figured it out, the boy was devastated. "Now I know for sure that Mom and Dad are the Tooth Fairy," he lamented. (She quickly back-tracked and, to his delight, was able to salvage his belief for a bit longer… which, as it turns out, is all he wanted.)

The blogger, Noell Hyman, contributed a couple of essays to Parenting Beyond Belief — which brings me back to McGowan.

In his essay, titled "Santa Claus — The Ultimate Dry Run,"  McGowan hits a home run in his defense of the Santa myth. He argues that "figuring out that Santa is not real" is a wonderful rite of passage for children, as long as parents tread lightly around the myth, and stay alert for the first hints of skepticism. When McGowan's son, for example, began to ask pointed questions — How does Santa get to all those houses in one night? How can he make it down the chimney with his big belly? Why does he use the same wrapping paper as Mom? — McGowan didn't try to answer the questions. He simply said: "Some people believe the sleigh is magic. Does that sound right to you?" and so on.

"I avoided both lying and setting myself up as a godlike authority, determined as I was to let him sort this one out himself," McGowan wrote in the essay. And then, when his son was 9 and finally asked him point-blank whether Santa was real, McGowan said, one last time, "What do you think?"

"Well," his son answered, smiling. "I think all the moms and dads are Santa. Am I right?"

McGowan smiled back and told the truth.

"So," McGowan asked, "how do you feel about that?"

His son shrugged. "That's fine. Actually, it's good. The world kind of… I don't know… makes sense again."

How cool is that?

Dale's attitude, which I think is the perfect combination between smart and fun, is the one I've tried to adopt as my own. I'm totally down for giving Santa cookies and looking for him out the window before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. But, as Maxine gets older and her critical thinking start kicking into high gear, my plan is to encourage her questioning while not ruining the surprise. If she asks me how Santa gets around the world in a night, I'll say, "I have no idea. It seems almost impossible, doesn't it?" If she asks me whether I believe in Santa, I'll say: "You know how I am about believing in things I've never seen for myself. What do you think? Do you believe in Santa?"

It's not all that unlike how I deal with the God questions, honestly. And McGowan makes very clear in his essay that this is part of the point. He writes:

"Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one… By allowing our children to participate in the Santa myth and find their own way out of it through skeptical inquiry, we give them a priceless opportunity to see a mass cultural illusion first from the inside, then from the outside."

The other thing McGowan suggests (that I love!) is heaping on praise the moment your child figures it all out for the first time: "Wow! How did you figure it out? What were your clues? I'm so proud of you!" In this way, you underscore how the Santa story is a real rite of passage, and "figuring it out" is something that takes a special type of maturity and wisdom.