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Santa Ambivalence

December 9, 2009

This morning I was reading a discussion on an online moms group where I am a member. The topic was, “Do your kids believe in Santa Claus?”  The discussion included a variety of responses ranging from enthusiastic Santa supporters (even among non-Christians) to those who are strongly opposed.  I’ve seen how powerful feelings about Santa can be; I even saw a relationship break up in part due to conflicts over Santa. I have to say my own feelings about Santa could best be described as ambivalent.

My family celebrates Christmas and we do do have some gifts under the tree from Santa.  I use different wrapping paper for the Santa gifts – although my husband, who generally pays little to no attention to those type of details, used the Santa paper one year for other gifts. I was worried about the implications of this error, but no one else even noticed. We have Santa decorations in the house. Over the years, there have been a couple of visits, complete with photo, to Santa at the mall.

But it pretty much stops there. I usually ask the kids for some ideas for gifts in case their grandparents, aunts, or godparents ask me what they’d like, but we don’t write letters to Santa. And we definitely don’t “talk up” Santa in the weeks leading to Christmas. I have never threatened my children that Santa won’t come because of their “naughty” behavior. When I hear other parents doing that it bothers me for a few of reasons. First, in most cases it is an empty threat. I have yet to meet a parent that would really withhold gifts from their children on Christmas day because of poor behavior earlier in the month. If the threat of Santa not coming works as a motivator to change behavior at all, it would be a very time-limited motivation. I would prefer that my children learn good behavior outside of the realm of Santa.

Most of my ambivalence about Santa, however, comes from discomfort with the deception involved. I have never been very good at lying. One of my strengths is my honesty. When I was younger I had a reputation among my friends as being “brutally honest.” Over the years I’ve learned to tone down the brutality, but if you’re looking for someone to give you straight, sincere feedback, I would be someone you’d seek. So carrying on the myth of Santa with my children felt in some ways like I was lying to them.

My children have taught me about the value of believing in Santa. I went into my first Christmases as a parent with the attitude that I would play along with the idea of Santa, but if they asked me for “the truth” I would tell them. When my oldest daughter was 6 years old, she asked me if Santa was real, and I explained to her that her father and I bought her gifts. I was surprised when she was later talking to her younger sister about how Santa is real. And I could tell that she really believed from the way she was talking; absent was any sense of a know-it-all big sister trying to pull one over on her little sis (a tone I’d heard many times before!). She wanted to still believe, so she did. Was she not paying attention to me when I busted the Santa myth before? I think she was paying attention, but I also think it was very important for her to believe in something magical and special. She wasn’t ready to stop believing in Santa yet despite having the facts laid out for her. I may have rushed in my telling her, partly to unburden myself of my discomfort with the deceit.

Since then, my approach has been to try to get a sense of where their questions are coming from before I give an answer. Maybe it’s the therapist in me, but I’ve gotten to be pretty good at asking them more about what they think, believe and really want to know before I start explaining things. How detailed are the questions? What is the tone of the question? What is the context of the conversation? These are all things that give me clues as to how to proceed. If I sense that they really want a straight and honest answer, I’ll give it to them. But if they seem to be looking for something else, I’ll hold back on my impulse to go for the truth.

When I told my husband that I was writing on this topic, he told me about an encounter he had with our 8 year old daughter this week. She recently lost a tooth and received some money by her pillow the next morning. When she asked him if he was really the tooth fairy, he told her the truth. He said he was surprised by her reaction when she threw her arms around him, hugged him, and said, “Thank you for telling me the truth.” It can be really empowering for children to know that their parents will be honest with them. The trick is in sensing what and when they want to know.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 21, 2009 11:45 am

    My 3 yo son already knows that gifts come from WalMart not from Santa! He is crazy about trains and engines and he knows the Toys section in WalMart. He has watched Polar Express, not to confirm his belief in Santa but because of his fascination with trains.

    My personal feeling is that there is no harm in playing a little “make believe” with kids. It keeps your own imagination alive. However using it to affect behavior, that is naughty vs nice, doesn’t work. Our twins already know that we get them the gifts anyway. We also don’t indulge them that often and we don’t set conditions for getting them their gifts.

    The story of Santa has to change for the children of the 21st century.

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