Belief in Santa could affect parent-child relationships, warns study

Spoiler alert: this article contains sensitive information about the existence of Santa Claus. Children may wish to look away now.

Parents, though, are being urged to re-consider the ethics of the great Santa Claus lie. In an article published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, two psychologists have raised the spectre of children’s moral compass being permanently thrown off-kilter by what is normally considered a magical part of the Christmas tradition.

The darker reality, the authors suggest, is that lying to children, even about something fun and frivolous, could undermine their trust in their parents and leave them open to “abject disappointment” when they eventually discover that magic is not real.

Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author, said: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

Levelling with your children so close to the big event may put a bit of a dampener on festivities, but parents must sometimes take the long view, according to McKay. “There is potential for children to be harmed in these lies,” she said.

McKay’s moral stance on Santa may collide with real life in the near future if her three-year-old goddaughter makes inquiries on the subject. “She believes in Santa at the moment and it’s not my role to go against her parent’s wishes,” she said. “She’s never asked me about Santa … when she does, I’ll tell her because I want my goddaughter to grow up knowing that there will always be safety and honesty with us.”

The article’s first author, Chris Boyle, a psychologist at the University of Exeter and the lead author, has a less hard-line position. “I’m not planning to go through the streets of Exeter dropping leaflets through doors,” he said, and admits that he would probably play along with the story if he had children of his own.

However, he is critical of those who invoke Santa’s potential no-show as the ultimate punishment for bad behaviour. “Some parents use it as a tool of control when they’re under a bit of pressure in the lead-up to Christmas,” said Boyle. “It’s potentially not the best parenting method. You’re talking about a mythical being deciding whether you’re getting presents or not.”

The authors advance several psychological explanations for why the “collective lie on a global scale” persists. First, humans have a strong tendency to conform, even when a behaviour is illogical. Second, all the evidence suggests that even adults have a strong urge to escape reality through make-believe. “We’re trying to hark back to our glory days as children,” said Boyle.

The two are not the first to question why society perpetuates the Santa myth. Richard Dawkins has previously questioned whether children should be encouraged to believe in Santa and scientifically implausible fairy tales. “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism,” he said in a 2014 talk. However, Dawkins later said that Santa could, in fact, “equip the child to reject supernaturalism when the time comes”.