Originally published at Breaking Modern:
Like most children, I grew up in a house without a chimney or fireplace. This made the Santa myth, which relies on a child’s unawareness of the size of the earth and its population, immediately less credible. How did the jolly fat guy gain access to our home, I questioned my mother?
No answer. I could see the wheels turning.
“He couldn’t possibly fit down the flue? Could he?” I tried to help.
I opened the utility closet. The pipe from the central heater and air conditioning convection unit to the ceiling was about six inches in diameter. Santa ferret?
Mom gave up. (If this convo happened today, she could have ordered a prevarification aid like Santa’s Magical House Key.)
Anyway, mom sat me down and confessed the truth: there’s no Santa, just a 10th-century Nordic myth. There was a reason, after all, that gifts labeled “from Santa” shared the same distinct handwriting as my mom’s.
When I tell this story to friends who are parents, they react with horror. “How awful! She deprived you of your imagination! Didn’t she want you to enjoy your childhood?” That point of view is represented by a 2010 essay in the San Francisco Chronicle: “All these childhood myths serve a brilliant purpose: a gentle way for kids to learn well-intended parents are not always reliable sources of truth.”
A 2012 Slate piece argues that not every lie is created equal: “First: Let go of any guilt you have about duping your kids. Santa belongs in the ‘good lie’ pile because parents invoke him for their kids’ sake; bad lies are the ones parents use to deflect blame or avoid responsibility—we can’t go to the playground today because it’s closed, when really, you’re just too lazy to get off the couch.”
I come down on the exact opposite side: A lie is a lie is a lie.
My mother’s decision to tell the truth about the Christmas myth is something for which I will be grateful my entire life. It certainly doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted my imagination: I’m a successful cartoonist and an excellent storyteller. But it did establish at an early age that I could count on my mother to tell me the unvarnished, honest truth. I knew, for many years following that incident, that I could count upon her for a no bullshit view of the world. It strengthened my trust in her, and therefore in my love for her. It was definitely a win-win.
While other parents kept lying to their elementary school-aged and even older children, especially about sex, my mother replied to my question about the birds and the bees by taking down her college biology book and showing what went in where and what happened after that.
Don’t get me wrong. My mother and I didn’t have a perfect relationship. Breaches of faith opened up between us. Mostly, however, this occurred not when my mom tried to protect me from some kind of unpleasant truth, but when she tried to bullshit me.
Never lie to someone unless you are sure you will get away with it.
For whatever reason, my mom tried to blow smoke up my tuckus more when I was a teenager and therefore even less likely to fall for bullshit – especially since she had already made the “mistake” of teaching me critical thinking and reading between the lines. Suddenly God, previously an abstraction, was marketed to me as a real, living entity who knew everything that I was up to and would punish me if I did wrong.
Definitely a mistake to try this bigger version of the Santa myth on me. I remember thinking to myself, “wow, she really thinks I’m stupid. I don’t know why I would confide in her. And when I experienced teen crises – sex, drugs, depression, academic problems – I became less likely to confide or share.
You don’t need to be a psychologist specializing in early childhood to know that trust creates the strongest bond between humans. Whether it’s a friend or a parent, think about it: as an adult, you believe in people whom you can count upon to give it to you straight.
Children aren’t stupider than adults. They’re certainly more observant. Don’t insult their intelligence.
And don’t worry about stifling their imagination.
“The Santa Lie…does not actually promote imagination or imaginative play,” William Irwin and David Kyle Johnson write in Psychology Today. “Imagination involves pretending, and to pretend that something exists, one has to believe that thing doesn’t exist. Does the Christian “imagine” that Jesus rose from the dead? Does the Muslim “imagine” that Muhammed’s rode his horse Barack (Al Boraq) at lightening speed from Mecca to Jerusalem and then assended into heaven? Of course not; they believe these things are true. Tricking a child into literally believing that Santa exists doesn’t encourage imagination, it actually stifles it. If you really want to encourage imagination in your children, tell them that Santa doesn’t exist, but that you are going to pretend like he does anyway on Christmas morning.”
This Christmas season, don’t give in to the temptation of signing off on a ridiculously transparent lie that will begin to undermine your relationship with your child. Tell her the truth. She can take it. She’ll love you more for it.