On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

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8 thoughts on “On lying to children

  1. I was raised as a Catholic and I never doubted Jesus because Saint Nicholas didn’t really exist. There’s a difference between faith and make-believe. Whenever people start to overthink something, it always comes out worse, doesn’t it?

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  2. I was raised the same way, and it did not bother me in the slightest. I do not take issue or judge any of my friends who do this now. Each family ought to choose how to train up their children.

    I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Political correctness was in its infancy in the 90s. Anti-Christian belligerence didn’t hit hard until the late 90s/early 2000s. As a parent in the current post-modern mess, I have to consider whether that same approach will work for my kids. We chose not to do Santa. We have Santa presents and milk and cookies, but the kids know that mommy and daddy are Santa, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. We are just “playing” or “pretending” as it were. We’ve strongly emphasized that this is a huge secret that they absolutely cannot share with friends or they will ruin the fun. Maybe we are not right to take away the full effect of pretending… I’m not sure, but I also have a child with a behavioral disorder, so I must weigh that in as well.

    I work very hard to teach the Bible as history and not “stories;” careful to use the words “lesson” or “account.” We work with maps and timelines, looking closely at the spots where secular and biblical history intertwine. They may still choose to reject the gospel someday, but I feel compelled to put forth my best effort into training them to survive in this world—spiritually and physically—and I don’t want anything to hazard the endeavor.

    I totally get what you’re saying, and I agree. Parents must weigh every decision with care and prayer and ask God to provide where we inevitably fall short. I have confidence He will.

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  3. Well said – I raised my children the same way. I also think it tragically ironic that a subtle form of ‘political correctness’ often creeps its way into church circles, vilifying all the ‘secularizing’ of holidays = adopted by Christians to celebrate spiritual realities. While denouncing the lies behind these legends, many quite hypocritically point accusing fingers at their brethren, who are Not under the same conviction of legalism. Knowing the truth and telling the truth are ALWAYS of utmost importance. But we are also admonished not to ‘cast our pearls before swine’ – NOT because some people are like pigs, but that they may not yet be able to rightly comprehend the true value of the truth. So, children often need to be insulated, and judgmental adults frequently need patience – lest I make my brother stumble. “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival…” – Col. 2:15.

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