The Santa Myth: A Symptom of Childism?

We recently arrived at the reception of our Christmas holiday destination where parents were being handed cards for their children to fill out and send to ‘Father Christmas’ a.k.a Santa. The questions asked if the children had been; a) Very good all year, b) Very good most of the year, or c) Just a little bit naughty! Followed by: For Christmas this year I would really love it if I could please, please have: …

I know it’s all supposed to be a bit of fun, with the intention of making the holiday season more exciting and enjoyable for the children and their families. I’m also increasingly aware that beneath the perpetuation of the Father Christmas/Santa Claus Myth lies some disturbing attitudes towards children which are prevalent in our society.

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Would it be acceptable to ask these questions of adults? To monitor the behaviour of large groups in society in this way? When we do it’s quite rightly called out as prejudice and discrimination. It’s been leading me to this question: Is telling our children that the Santa Myth is real a symptom of the continued presence of childism in our society? It is after all dehumanising to evaluate children in these ways. Perhaps it would be fairer to ask parents how they’ve been behaving towards each other and their children, as from a psychological and emotional point of view this will have a much greater impact on the child’s behaviour.

Instead it is more socially acceptable to focus on evaluating children’s behaviour. We cast judgement upon them by deciding whether they have behaved well enough to receive gifts or not and of more concern are the implications as to whether they are worthy of our love and attention? Many parents will claim that they do not use the Santa Myth to shame and punish children but to enhance their imaginations and to add to their excitement, joy and wonder at the magic of Christmas. But is this really what lies at the heart of the Santa Myth? It’s helpful to stop and critically question the acceptance of a tradition which may perpetuate harmful attitudes towards children.

Elisabeth Young Bruehl described childism as “prejudice against children” comparable to other prejudices such as sexism and racism. Young Bruehl suggested that “People as individuals and in societies mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them, to project internal conflicts and self hatreds outward, or to assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned. But regardless of their individual motivations, they all rely upon societal prejudice against children to justify themselves and legitimate their behaviour.”

This prejudice towards children is manifest on a number of levels from the individual to societal. Childism is present in our everyday attitudes and behaviours towards children, such as monitoring their behaviour, not giving them genuine choices, punishing, coercing and not taking their views, thoughts and feelings into account.

These attitudes are supported and reinforced through inadequate and discriminatory policies and cultural practices towards children and young people. For example, there are a lack of laws protecting children from corporal punishment at home and at school, a lack of services and resources to support children and their families. Dr Claudia Gold, Paediatrician explains how childism is fuelling the diagnosis of large numbers of children with ‘illnesses’ and ‘disorders’ such as ADHD, ODD, ASD and/or other developmental ‘differences’ for which there is no valid and reliable biological evidence. Children are medicated and/or treated with behavioural modification approaches rather than looking deeper at the underlying causes of emotional distress they may be experiencing within the family and wider societal context.

When children are looked at more closely as a group we can seen how disempowered they are in their everyday lives. Children do not have the right to vote or to choose whether or not they attend nursery or school unless the adults who are responsible for caring for them make that decision on their behalf. They do not have the right to own property, to have a regular income and rely on the adults in their lives to feed, clothe and provide for them. Around the world large numbers of children experience poverty, neglect, violence and physical punishment and there are often inadequate laws and policies in place to protect them and to help the adults who are struggling. John Holt, Educator and Children’s Rights Activist discusses these issues in-depth in his book ‘Escape From Childhood: The Needs & Rights of Children‘.

Children are one of the most if not the most disempowered groups in society. It is in this context that large numbers of children who are thoughtful and intelligent members of our society are being told that the Santa Myth is real and are encouraged to believe the ‘evidence’ provided by adults they trust at home, at school, and in the community that Santa exists.

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It seems that almost everyone is in on the joke except of course for the children themselves. “More than this…” write Dr Christopher Boyle, Developmental Psychologist and Dr Kathy McKay Post Doctoral Researcher in a recent article ‘A Wonderful Lie‘ published in the The Lancet “…it is a collective lie on a global scale, one which seems not only acceptable, but also necessary—woe betide the person who tells a child that Santa is a lie before the child works it out for themselves.”

What function is this narrative serving?

Explicit Social Control: The Santa Myth is usually told in relationships between parents and children where there is an inherent power imbalance. Parents and educators openly use the narrative as a mechanism for disciplining children who are manipulated and coerced into behaving in ways that please adults in order to receive gifts or to avoid losing them. This has the effect of leaving children in a more vulnerable and needy position as their needs for attention, affection and love are not being met unconditionally. These ideas are manifest on a societal level when teachers at school support and encourage these practices with the use of ‘Santa Cam‘ and ‘The Elf on the Shelf‘ which are also portrayed in popular culture, media, books, videos and films.

Implicit Social Control: The narrative may also function as a vehicle for social control by manipulating and shaping children’s beliefs and emotional experience of the world by constructing it as fantastical and supernatural in nature. By encouraging children to believe in the Santa Myth as fact we perpetuate a vision of them as being inherently credulous, unable to think rationally and make decisions about their lives. This feeds into the idea of children being ‘other’, qualitatively ‘different to’ and/or ‘less’ than adults, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dynamic. Richard Dawkins explores this view of children in his essay “Putting Away Childish Things”.

Jacqueline D. Woolley at the University of Texas, Austin found that 83% of the 5 year olds she interviewed in her research study believed that Santa was real. Woolley was curious to know why when the story holds so many contradictions and ambiguities that children were susceptible to believing the Santa Myth? Woolley found that children are rational and thoughtful consumers of information. In a similar way to adults, children as young as 4 years old are able to critically assess the context in which information is embedded, compare information they are given to their own existing knowledge base and evaluate the expertise of other people.

Woolley concluded that the reason why children tend to believe the Santa myth is precisely because they trust the adults around them to provide them with accurate information. In fact adults can go to great lengths to provide evidence to encourage children to believe in the Santa Myth. Woolley found that 84% of parents take their children to two or more Santa impersonators during the holiday period and she cites companies such as ‘The Elf on the Shelf’, originally a children’s picture book about elves who inform Santa about children’s behaviour around Christmastime, as now being a multi-million-dollar franchise. ‘The Elf on the Shelf’ is essentially a version of 18th century social philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – a prison design based on ubiquitous surveillance for social control and behaviour modification.

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During our Christmas vacation there was a big focus on being able to meet Santa and also being able to receive a personalised letter from him. Facebook is often filled with pictures of children happily, and sometimes not so happily meeting Santa in his various grottos around the world.

Given the inherent power imbalance between adults and children in our society and that children depend upon their parents and other adults they trust to help them make accurate and informed decisions about their lives, is it ethically sound to continue to lie to them about the existence of Santa Clause often over a sustained period of their lives?

Lying to children inevitably creates a divide between parents and children. It increases the distance between them emotionally and psychologically and it heightens the power differential, leaving children more vulnerable and open to being exploited by the adults around them. A number of developmental psychologists, child activists and researchers have raised their concerns about the damage that telling lies to children about the existence of Santa and other mythical beings could have on trust and parent/child relationships (Boyle & McKay, 2016; Hunt 2014, Johnson, 2015).

Why do parents persist with the Santa Myth?

Parents do not want to knowingly disrespect and harm their children and they may continue to lie to them because they believe it is in their child’s best interests. Parents claim that children are having fun, exercising their imaginations and experiencing the wonderful magic of childhood and of Christmas. However do children really need such a myth to ignite their imaginations and to experience the wonder that the world has to offer at Christmas or any other time of year? Or does this romantised view of children say more about the adults needs for fantasy and make believe?

In their article in the Lancet, Boyle and McKay suggest that parents may feel that … “returning to a fantasy world, there is a comfort in being able to briefly re-enter childhood, which was a magical experience for many. A time when imagination was accepted and encouraged but which becomes lost in the space and time of adulthood. The self-conscious recreation of myth seems to be as popular as it ever was. Might it be the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation of something better, something to believe in, something to hope for in the future or to return to a long lost childhood…”

Parents may also re-visit and project onto their children past conflicts from their own childhoods where they themselves felt powerless and unheard. By projecting this fantasy on to their children they are reversing the tables and in re-creating the evidence for Santa they are able to process some of those feelings of powerlessness by playing it out with their children. Parents may temporarily experience an sense of increased power as they are able to manipulate their children’s emotional experience for their own personal needs, even if on a conscious level they have rationalised it as being for their children’s own benefit.

In some cases parents may follow the traditions that they themselves experienced as children without stopping to question them. They may wish to feel included and valued as members of society and it may feel threatening to decide to step outside of this practice, particularly when there strong cultural messages from friends, family and in the media encouraging us to conform. Traditions can function to contain anxiety and to shore up our identities during times of transition.  The Santa Myth can unite parents in a common aim, providing shared experience, validating their role as ‘good’ parents when at times there might be ambiguity, tension and no clear cut differences inherent in these roles.

If we believe that children evaluate information in a qualitatively differently from adults this may provide justification for treating them in certain ways. It may also temporarily bolster our self-esteem and increase the emotional separation we experience between our our childhood and adult selves which can enable us to distance ourselves from painful events in our own childhoods – a time when we may have felt particularly disempowered or hurt. However, the reality is that if as adults we are put in a similar situation (as many of us were during the recent Brexit and Trump elections – where adults made decisions about which candidate to vote for based on lies and inaccurate information they were told were true) it can be very difficult to make informed decisions if we are not given the information that we need to make sound judgements.

It is also unhelpful when parents do not answer their children’s questions about the existence of Santa directly but leave it up to the child to make up their own minds without having provided them with accurate, contextualised information necessary to be able to evaluate the evidence. Children have far more limited access to information than the adults around them. They in fact rely on adults, and in particular their parents, for most if not all of the information about the world in which they live. Of course with access to the internet and online resources like YouTube children are much more able to access information directly. Although research by Professor Sonia Livingstone at the London School of Economics, suggests that children still benefit from their parents partnering them to make the most of these online opportunities. You can watch Prof. Livingstone’s TED Talk here.

In short it’s important to be open, transparent and truthful with children if we want to have an accurate idea of their abilities and in order to form trusting and meaningful relationships with them. How do we feel when friends, work colleagues, politicians or professionals lie to us or leave us to make up our own minds when they haven’t provided us with the background information that would help us in making informed choices?

We may find it endearing to think that children believe in mythical beings if we tell them that they’re real but this in itself can be seen as a further manifestation or childism: a tendency to infantalise children which John Holt describes in ‘The Cuteness Syndrome’ which is in itself objectifying, disrespectful and disempowering. By telling children mythical stories are factual we place them in a vulnerable position which leads us to think of them as endearing, cute or at worst gullible and easily duped.

It seems that in Western culture there is a lot invested in continuing to misrepresent children in these ways. The Santa Myth is in my opinion an overt manifestation of childism and the narrative operates to perpetuate childist attitudes by constructing a view of the child as less rational and less able to evaluate information and make informed decisions than they actually are. This helps maintain the power imbalance and supports our misinformed view of children in a society fundamentally shaped by childism.

The myth operates so perniciously and feeds into our attitudes towards children that many of us do not even recognise the function the narrative is serving. It is important that we stop and critically question many of the traditionally received practices which have become embedded in Western culture. The Santa Myth may not only be harming our relationships with our own children but may be contributing to a societal attitude which infantalises and impedes children from being seen as valuable and equal contributors to our society both now and in the future.

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