I’m a parent of two small children, the eldest of whom is 2½ years old. Last year at Christmastime, family members and friends began to remark to my eldest about Santa Claus bringing him gifts for the holiday. He seemed too young to understand the idea of Santa, but now as we approach another holiday season and he is one year older, I find myself struggling with the concept.
I understand many parents lie to their children about various things large and small — for example, they’ll tell their child the ice cream parlor is closed to shut down a request for a treat — and I can neither judge nor vilify them. But I remember acutely the pain of realizing my own parents were willing to lie to me, as they sometimes did to smooth things over for themselves or perhaps protect my feelings.
When I became a parent, I vowed I would be as truthful with my own children as possible, acknowledging that even small children are worthy of the respect I would afford another adult. And the elaborate undertaking of “becoming” Santa Claus is one of the very few instances I would ever be faced with of keeping up a ruse; in other words, this is no one-time fib. As a child, I was flummoxed and hurt when I realized the truth about Santa — when I confronted my mother, she would neither admit the truth nor explain why she’d partaken in the yearslong charade.
Other parents tell me they see engaging in the fantasy of Santa Claus as an important, fun part of childhood, and a rite of passage to one day discover the truth. So why can’t I help feeling that I’d be undermining the honest and trusting relationship I seek to build with my children? — Laura Iannello, Verona, N.Y.
From the Ethicist:
Wait — there’s no Santa Claus? The trouble is that what it means to believe in something or someone, not least Santa Claus, can be far from straightforward. Let’s start with the fact that we use language for all sorts of purposes: to inform, to entertain, to honor, to shame, to argue, to win, to woo, to wow, to take wing. Yes, a strong commitment to truthfulness is important. It enables us to act on knowledge provided by others. I salute you for honoring this ideal in your home. But socializing your children entails recognizing the limits of radical honesty.
For one thing, there are plenty of true but unkind observations we should not volunteer, and it doesn’t help to append “I’m just being honest.” It’s OK to tell your grandparents that you like their Christmas present when you don’t. For another, expressive language often involves statements that aren’t literally true: Are you really so hungry you could eat a horse? Equally important, though, is how we use words in the realm of play.
Pretend play, developmental psychologists tell us, is something children learn to do in extended ways before they’re 3. Kids can treat a mud pie as a cake, or make believe they’re someone else: “I’m a princess!” And while their parents can sometimes be intently literal in what they say (“Don’t touch the stove”), they can also invent silly scenarios nobody could mistake for fact (“I’m going to eat you up!”). The Santa Claus conceit doesn’t fall neatly into either camp; it’s a different kind of game.
When parents talk to their young children about the Midnight Sleigher, there’s typically a glint in their eye, and a certain amount of mugging. And so, when their children figure out that Santa is an imaginary character, they can feel as if they’re finally in on the game, not as if they’ve been cruelly betrayed. They may themselves, on some level, have chosen to prolong the pretense — and not ask hard questions about the likelihood of heavy-hooved mammals flying through the sky or a fat man squeezing through narrow chimneys beyond number. Certain proponents of the philosophical tradition of pragmatism have advanced the (misleading) formulation that what’s “true” is what is useful to believe; in this respect, plenty of 6-year-olds are cheerful pragmatists.
But your childhood experience was different, and so is your attitude toward the Santa story today. If you don’t perceive it as a form of play, you won’t be able to convey that sense of play. (Indeed, it sounds as if your mother couldn’t quite figure out how to get out of character, which might say something about her and something about you.) Only parents who are feeling the Santa spirit should be in the Santa business. For you, it would be an uncharacteristic performance, a source not of merriment but of a knotted stomach. You won’t enjoy it, and your kids will end up confused.
So, when your elder kid asks about the guy with the beard and the belly, you can simply say, “I don’t believe in Santa Claus, but millions do.” You don’t want to wind him up to talk Santa down. Either way, he won’t be the only Santa skeptic in nursery school, and sly parents have already worked out a response. (“Yeah, see, if you don’t believe in Santa Claus, you just get what your folks give you.”) In preschools with kids from varied backgrounds, everyone gets used to the fact that different households have different customs.
A final note. You want your children to believe in you, and your determination to earn their trust is admirable. But growing up is about learning that you shouldn’t always trust what adults say, even when they’re sincere: They may be mistaken about the facts and the judgments they accept. If your kids become parents one day, they’ll make their own decisions about whether to play the reindeer games.
The last question was from a Los Angeles resident who wondered what he owed climate-deniers in Kentucky. He wrote: “What moral obligation do we owe to help the residents of Kentucky who experienced that horrendous flooding in February 2023, given that the representatives they elect to the Senate and the House of Representatives have consistently denied that climate change is occurring and have done whatever is in their power to block climate-change legislation? This issue is not comparable to the moral obligation that we owe to provide health care to smokers or the obese, for instance, who suffer the ill effects of their chosen lifestyle. None of us are perfect, and we all, in some manner, contribute to our own ill health. But more important, your smoking does not adversely affect my health. On the other hand, the votes of Kentucky’s elected representatives directly injure me by preventing the passage of effective climate legislation.”
In his response, the Ethicist noted: “We have special responsibilities toward our fellow citizens — call them civic obligations — that we don’t have toward just anyone. Those civic obligations include a particular duty of aid when our fellows face emergencies. … Withdrawing assistance needed by our fellow citizens because they support bad policies looks like trying to change their support for policies by nonrational means. The only legitimate way to defeat bad policies is to get better policies adopted. And that should be done by convincing people, not by penalizing them. Trying to charge people for voting for the wrong policies would be ruinous for a democratic polity. … In these fractious times, we need to strengthen, not weaken, a common sense of purpose — a sense that we’re one American people, running the republic together for the good of us all.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)
I appreciated the Ethicist’s measured, fair tone in responding to the Californian who seems to think their perceived moral superiority entitles them to mete out revenge on those they disagree with. As someone who lived for years in California — and loved it — I’d ask whether other Americans should be obligated to provide disaster aid to people who choose to live in a known earthquake zone. I would never argue that they should be cut off. — Marla
I disagree with the Ethicist’s answer. First, we have no moral “duty” to help others in distress. One may choose to do so out of charitable sensitivities, empathy, sympathy, hope for reciprocity or countless other reasons, but “duty” isn’t one of them. And the failure or refusal to be charitable isn’t a breach of any “duty,” although it may be criticized for other reasons. I also disagree with saying withholding assistance is “nonrational means” to get policy changes. Nonsense. Policy and policy changes are promoted by economic incentives all the time. One can make a good argument that moral persuasion is better (and I would agree), but that doesn’t invalidate economic incentives. Representatives from many red states voted against disaster relief for my state (New Jersey) after Hurricane Sandy, out of political spite directed at blue states. That was abhorrent, but it fully justifies reciprocity in kind. I am not interested in being charitable to those harmed by their officials’ political choices when it is one-sided, all take and no give. That is fair, and fairness is morally appropriate. — Mark
Has the letter writer not heard of gerrymandering or voter suppression? I resent these remarks from folks outside of the Appalachia/Deep South regions. We aren’t stupid or lazy — our votes are suppressed. The letter writer would be well served to read up on John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.” — Sarah
I agree with the Ethicist. I would just like to add that the letter writer’s dilemma could reflect their frustration with the legislators in Kentucky and their lack of control of the situation. The letter writer can’t vote in Kentucky, so they may see their proposed solution as the only way to have a voice. The fact that the letter writer wants help from the Ethicist in sorting this out implies that they understand there is no easy answer here. — Mary
Amen! What a great response from the Ethicist to such a spiteful question — the kind of selfish, undemocratic thinking that is driving the rampant polarization in our nation today. I am a Kentuckian and a New Yorker, and was visiting the Bluegrass State from Brooklyn when those floods came last year. I witnessed families tumble filthy and scared with their salvaged possessions into the state parks for shelter, saw neighbors donate their own clothes and bedding, watched children host bake sales and sports teams clean flood debris. Americans, red or blue, North or South, take care of each other if they face a tragedy — even the jerks. Kentucky’s motto is “United we stand, divided we fall.” — Caroline