Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Why Christian parents should not teach their children that Santa Claus is real

From Dr. Lydia McGrew, who blogs at What’s Wrong with the World.

Excerpt:

Here’s another anecdotal example of a child’s linking belief in God and in Santa Claus dangerously: In March a young girl visited my (small) church, and my eldest daughter spent some time talking with her. My daughter ended up much concerned about her. The younger girl, age 9, had clearly been trying to test the waters to see what the 16-year-old wanted her to say. At one point she said, “I’m not even sure I believe in God. Well, I sort of believe in Him. I sort of believe in God and Santa Claus.” This was not reassuring.

Consider what it means to teach a young child to believe that Santa Claus is real. You are teaching the child that a person exists who is benevolent and has super-powers, who can do incredible things, who sees his actions while remaining unseen, who rewards good acts, and with whom (if you encourage letter-writing to Santa) the child can communicate.

If you’re a Christian parent, you are very likely teaching the child at the same time in his life and at the same stage in his development to believe in God–a powerful and benevolent Being who sees his actions while remaining unseen, who rewards good actions and punishes evil actions, and with whom the child can communicate by praying. In fact, you encourage him to pray to this Unseen Being.

To induce belief in your child in both of these teachings, you are relying on the fact that children naturally believe what their parents tell them.

But one is an unimportant falsehood and the other is the ultimately important Truth.

Belief in Santa Claus is temporary. Eventually kids figure out that Mom and Dad have been telling them a white lie and that the causes of the presents on Christmas morning are mundane. As the above story about the artist’s daughter shows, it isn’t that much of a stretch for the astute child to wonder whether the other story about an invisible, benevolent Being who is the cause of all things, seen and unseen, has also been a white lie and whether the causes of all the things previously attributed to Him are, instead, mundane.

Atheists trade on this. I’m sure my astute readers could find dozens of examples of atheist rants to very much the “when I became a man, I put away childish things” effect. And this trope can be very effective for older young people as well. A Christian high school or college student willno doubt at some point encounter the following line of thought: “Why do you believe in God? Because your parents told you that He exists, right? But you believed in Santa Claus on the same basis. If you’d been raised in another culture, you would believe a different religion, and they can’t all be true. At some point you have to start thinking for yourself. Just as it turned out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, so, you’ll find, it turns out that God doesn’t exist either. You’re old enough to figure this out for yourself.”

Unfortunately, most Christian young people do not go to college primed with evidences for the existence of God and for Christianity. This argument against authority may well strike them as devastating. And–I’m sorry to have to say it, but it must be said–it will strike them as all the more devastating if the coin of parental speech has been devalued by those little white lies told them in their innocence for the sake of cuteness.

When I ask parents why they would want to tell their children something that they know isn’t true, they usually tell me that having their children believe nice-sounding things is amusing to them. It seems to me that it’s a split between:

  • pride: knowing something that the children don’t know
  • deception: making children think that the world is nicer than it really is
  • manipulation: tricking children into “being good” by appealing to material goods (easy), instead of presenting reasons and articulating a full-blown theistic worldview that grounds morality as part of the design of the Creator (hard)

I am a former camp counselor and teacher. When I was in my teens, I worked with children of all different ages from 3-12 as well as with developmentally delayed adults – mostly teaching them sports, games, math, logic and other useful things. I always treated the children with respect, because in my mind, these were all future Airborne Rangers, future submarine drivers, future diplomats/CIA spies, future software engineers, future Congressman, future cryptographers, future nurses, future doctors, etc. And what I found is that although children like it when they are allowed to be childish, they also like it when you talk to them like adults and treat them like a smaller version of you. They understand treating them like a to-be grown-up as a form of respect. Young men especially love to be trusted with big responsibilities.

I looked at each child and thought to myself, “this is how football players look at age 8″ or “this person could be my boss one day”. And guess what? They really like being treated with respect, and they really like it when people tell them what to expect in the future. They like understanding what school will be like, what work will be like, how to make money, how cars work, what going to the airport and flying on a plane is like, and how to write computer programs. And when you lie to them about anything, it undermines their trust in you for everything. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to proportion rewards to good behavior, I’m saying that it’s wrong to tie rewards  to a myth which will eventually be exposed.

Just this week I was busy scheming with some Christian college students about their future jobs and what they should be learning and doing in order to be successful while still having a ministry. Why not treat children and young adults like that? Why not give them good advice and do things together with them and build them up with resources so that they can achieve? They are not your pets, they are not there to amuse you. They work for God – just like you. You both have the same boss, and the same job. You have a responsibility to act in a way that will help them to achieve goals, be effective and be influential.

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28 Responses

  1. There is NOTHING wrong with Santa.

    Devout Christians just need to tell the real story of St. Nicholas

  2. Santa Claus is real! And my teen age children know it to be so. They are also baptized, believing Christians who, through church and a religious home believe that Jesus Christ is their savior through faith alone.
    When the question of Santa ever comes up around one of their hum-bug non-believing friends, and it has over the past several years, I explain to them very simply that yes Santa Clause is real, he is very, very real. In my house as a boy growing up he was my mom and dad, now in our home he is me. In their homes he is their parents, or uncles and aunts, grand parents etc.(there are a lot of non-traditional families down here in SoCal), but whoever provides for them on Christmas and around the year is Santa Clause.
    I had raised my kids to believe in the myth of Santa too and one year they confronted me and wanted the truth. So I leveled with them. With big hugs all around and a healthy reminder of what Christmas is REALLY all about, I told them that in our house I was Santa. After a little while, and a reminder that all good things come from the Lord, they accepted it. For parents struggling with this issue, it’s what I recommend. So yes, I believe in Santa Clause, he’s me!

  3. Matt says:

    I’m glad to have read this. My wife and I have had this exact discussion before, and don’t plan to teach our kids about “Santa Claus” for this very reason.

  4. BUT: How many kids begin to distrust their parents and the concept of God when they find out about Santa?! Don’t let Santa (or its equivalent: big government) become a substitute for God. It may be fine for very young kids (“Yes, Virginia. Santa Clause ‘IS real’ . . . . etc. etc. . .”), but certainly not after 5 yrs (6 max) old. As the late great Rich Buhler advised, kids should be taught early that Santa Clause, the Elves, Reindeer, etc. are in the same category and as real as Spider Man or any such cartoon figure. P.S.: Don’t let you kids be the last to find out in his class. – dP

  5. Fleur says:

    We’ve always taught our kids that Santa isn’t real, and it has really cost us! When my daughter was asked by her kindergarten teacher what we know about Christmas, she blurted out to all the class that ‘Santa wasn’t real!’ – (bless her!) let’s just say that quite a few kids were in shock – and I’m sure some parents weren’t real happy – and this was in a Christian school!! I totally agree that the lying part is the big issue – I’ve heard Christian adults say that the myth of Santa really undermined their trust in their parents – something that took years to re-establish. This is one of the main reasons we don’t do ‘Santa.’

    • Ha ha! And blurting out the truth which her parents told her and finding out later she was right will help you a lot. Because now she knows that although other children may be lied to by their parents, she won’t be.

  6. Eric says:

    “Pride, deception, manipulation”?!? Are you kidding?? How could you rob your child of the magic and wonderment that is Santa Claus and Christmas? I enjoy your blog, but this post misses the point of Santa Claus entirely! My wife and I are devout Christians and we have already begun explaining to our 2 year old that the birth of the baby Jesus is the reason for the season, and that because of the gift which The Lord gave us we likewise give and receive gifts with some of those special gifts coming from Santa. It seems y’all could do with a reading of some CS Lewis regarding his reasoning for writing the chronicles of narnia. Through fictional beings and characters, such as Santa Claus and Aslan, we can teach children and have them experience in ways they can understand when receiving gifts from him about the love, wonder, magic and happiness that The Lord wants to share with us all through the gift of His Son. In my opinion, to not share the magic of Santa Claus with children is to miss out on an excellent opportunity to share with them and teach them of the love of The Lord Jesus Christ. To each his own, but I feel sorry for those Christians who would deprive their children the joy of this experience of Santa Claus during the celebration of the birth of Jesus The Christ.

    • Paulette says:

      My children celebrated Santa even though I told them the source. It is because this myth crosses over into real life and a real life that says nothing about the love of God. We can’t buy salvation but I heard a demand for good behaviour against a threat of missing a Christmas treat only this week. Santa today is used to reward good behaviour. God rewards repentance.

  7. My parents never told us Santa was real. We knew it was all make believe and just for fun . So we left out cookies for Santa (knowing they were for daddy) and pretended it was Santa going to fill our stockings, but we were always told that it was just pretend. My parents didn’t want to lie to us or to have us mistrust them on important things like the existence of God. I plan to do the same with my daughter and any future kids we have. Many people think it’s just harmless fun, but lying to your kids and teaching them to mistrust what you have told them is real is very serious.

    Along similar lines, it’s also important to teach children about the Bible in a different way than we teach them fictitious stories. The Bible is real history and should be taught as such rather than talking about Bible “stories” that sound similar to fairy tales. Too often parents and churches teach the Bible in such a simplified and unrealistic way and then wonder why kids grow up and don’t believe it. You have to teach it realistically and without the sensationalism that often accompanies kid’s fiction. Talk about the people and events in their historical context and be ready to answer questions. Some of the “Bible stories” that are often taught are simply not accurate or are too simplified and create misperceptions that can be very persistent, even into adult life. My husband and I refer to this simplified and inaccurate understanding of the Bible as the “Sunday School Fairy Tale” version and it’s very harmful. I wrote a blog post about this several months ago: http://www.lindsays-logic.blogspot.com/2012/05/sunday-school-fairy-tales-or-why-bible.html

    • Eric says:

      Of course, the Bible should be taught as accurate as possible. However, the point of allowing children to experience the joy, wonder and magic of Santa Claus and Christmas is to allow them to actually experience the joy and magic that the Lord meant for us all when He sent us His Son in the form of that baby in a manger. Santa Claus allows children to relate to this gift from the Lord in a way that is understandable to them. And when children grow older and learn that Santa is not exactly as they thought, they will understand what the Lord and their parents were trying to teach them through allowing them to experience the magic of Christmas, Santa and the Christ Jesus.

      • Do you really think that what you said is on the minds of the majority of parents when they teach about Santa Claus?

        • Eric says:

          Well, it is what my parents taught me, and what we are teaching our children. So, I don’t know if a majority do, but all Christian ones should in my opinion.

          • AntiIlluminatus says:

            Christians SHOULD NOT try to convince their kids of Santa at all in any way whatsoever because they would be LYING. What is the Ninth Commandment my friend? So you think God is okay with it just because it’s all in good fun???????

      • There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the fun and excitement of the holidays, and Santa can be a fun way to do that, but it is not necessary to lie to kids and tell them Santa is real to do that. It can be fun and enjoyable without being mistaken for reality. We don’t have to tell them that Cinderella or Superman are real people for them to enjoy the stories and learn something from them, and the same is true for Santa. There is much to be learned from fiction and I’ll be the first one to say that. But when you purposely confuse fiction with reality you don’t do kids any favors.

        • Eric says:

          I would say that depends on the age of the child more than anything. And I disagree that you are lying to your child as a lie implores deceit where there is none in the case of Santa. Santa is an image that parents can create for their child to help them understand the experience of God, there is not any deceit or untruth in that. And when done with that in intention it can be a wonderful experience for the child.

          • Sure if you say to your kids that there is an icon known as Santa that can help them understand the Christmas spirit and the idea of giving and receiving gifts, then you’re not lying. But nobody says that. What they say is that there is a man/elf named Santa that lives at the North Pole and brings presents to good children all over the world on Christmas Eve after they are asleep. That’s a lie, pure and simple. You might call it a white lie because you’re not doing it with the intention of harming anyone. But it’s not true. There is no toy factory at the North Pole. There is no sleigh pulled by reindeer that flies through the sky. There is no person named Santa that can deliver gifts to all the good children of the world in one night. And teaching children to believe something that is not true may reap unintended consequences.

            Eventually children realize that it doesn’t make sense for a sleigh to fly or a person to be able to visit millions of homes in a single night. There’s a much better explanation for the gifts that appear at Christmas. So they realize that Santa isn’t real. Unfortunately, as those same children get older they are going to be told, sooner or later, that God is a myth – that science shows there is no need for a creator, that the Bible contains errors and can’t be trusted, that believing in God is just a crutch for those who want a supernatural genie to help them deal with life. And they may well fall for that “better explanation” for God – especially if they think that maybe their parents have just been painting a picture for them of the beauty and excitement of life, just giving them an image of the importance of being a good person and having a happy life. Maybe God is just a figure like Santa is to make them feel good. I’m not willing to take that chance on my children’s eternity for the sake of my own happy feelings at their cute little belief in Santa.

  8. Chrisitna says:

    I have such a oxymoronical relationship with Santa Clause and fairy stories, its kind of hard to puzzle it out to someone living outside my head.

    I want to introduce my kids to wonder and awe – the beauty of life, generosity of heart, and wonder at things unknown. I don’t know if I ever actually BELIEVED in Santa Clause or fairies, but the stories of them (and my parents pretending they existed) was a kind of game that taught me to see the world through different eyes.

    Actually, taught me to see God through those eyes.

    Should I stop dancing around the house slashing at pretend pirates and tell my kid they don’t exist? I’ve been working pretty hard at trying to get him to see the world around him in a different way. Suburban life can get a bit boring without an imagination. And I would argue that its a bit hard believing in an invisible being without having some power of imagination.

    That being said, my son has been hearing about Jesus Christ since he was born. He’s 3 now, we spent all of last Lent reading about Jesus’s ministry before Easter, knows the Lord’s Prayer by heart, and says he loves Jesus. I ONLY just started telling him about Santa Clause and the very first thing we did to introduce the idea was reading a book about St. Nicholas.

    Our home-made advent calendar is filled with little items, from lighting the advent wreath each Sunday night to reading stories about giving, Santa, and the Nativity. On Christmas morning, he’ll pull out Jesus in a manger.

    To me, teaching my son about Santa Clause, the goal is to cultivate a spirit of generosity and giving in my son at an age where his imagination is going to be the best way for him to connect to an abstract idea. But at the end of the day, the most generous gift of all is Jesus Christ.

  9. ray says:

    absolutely, christina and eric!

    it’s proper to be careful about paganizing holidays in our godless culture, but lydia mcgrew is way off . . . guess thats why the bible commands women to be silent and learn in all submission… :O)

    Jesus loves christmas, he is the very spirit of generosity and selflessness, which is what we are actually celebrating by hallowing his blessed birth

    the most powerful “spirituals” ever written are almost all “christmas songs” b/c the Spirit was close in the folks that wrote the best of them

    God wouldnt have allowed his Spirit to be poured out that way, if he didnt want us to be cheerful and joyful at christmas — as long as Christ, not material things, is at the center of our joy

    christmas is the last cultural element left in the west, that secular and believer can share in a spirit of kindness and giving

    as a child i had wonderful christmasses, complete with santa, and it didnt turn me away from Christ, so with-holding christmas from kids is b.s., mean, or in the case or doctor lydia mcgrew, controlfreakism

  10. Paulette says:

    As my now adult daughter told me – it caused her no harm that I told her and my other children the story of St Nicholas (and explained there were legendary components) instead of saying that Santa was real. In fact it seems to me now reading this blog that I did a good thing.

    A bigger issue, and one in which I was equally uncompromising was on ghosts.

  11. Holly says:

    I fully agree! When I was little and learned the truth I remember thinking if Santas not real then god must not be either since they were so similar I remember thinking in church during Sunday school that the adults must be in there classes talking about how to trick us kids in believing in god! Thank goodness it didn’t affect me to bad as i fully believe in him but because of this we are teaching our children in the spirit and magic of Christmas about Jesus and gods love! I have never liked Christmas as I have these past few years that we took Santa completely out of Christmas!
    When we debated telling or not telling our kids about Santa we finally looked at each other and said are we really debating if we are going to lie to our kids?

  12. Jason says:

    There is no harm in telling little kids about Santa Claus. Growing up, my family were “cultural” Christians…..we were a Christmas and Easter family.

    I remember somewhere in late 1970-something learning that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but my folks growing up also told me that Christmas was “originally” celebrated by the birth of Jesus Christ, a very real event.

    Santa was always cool, he never brought me the “Legos” I always wanted to have, but he never forgot me growing up ;-)

    It’s a commercial thing now (and has been for many, many decades), something the original story and poem never alluded to, or honestly would want it to be; if I may be so bold.

    I am not a parent, but have a ton of little cousins, and I run a large Cub Scout Pack….as long as kids are learning that Christmas is about the birth of The Savior first….and this is the reason for the “celebration” what’s wrong with that?

  13. Julie says:

    I fully agree with everything in this article. There is no part of it that I disagree with or find fault with. The moment a child realizes their parents are full of crap is the moment that child believes their parents know nothing. If you want to raise kids other than the degenerates we have walking around society – try telling them the truth in all manner of existence and non-existence; including Santa Claus. All you’re doing is harming them for your own personal gain of the “adorableness” that Santa brings. I for one will always remember little Michael Humphrey – who stood up in the middle of church on a Sunday and said “Christmas is Jesus’s birthday and I’m not wearing no party hat while there’s some jolly fat man stepping all over Jesus’s cake”. That little 8 year old knew his stuff – disgusting that adults don’t.

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