Magical Thinking and the Holidays: Is It Harmful to Lie to Our Kids?

'Tis the season for magical thinking...but is there a downside to lying to our kids? New research offers some helpful tips.
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During the holiday season, millions of children embrace the magical notion of Santa Claus. Most parents, myself included, cherish this time of the year because we get to join our kids in the world of make believe. We may order snow from the North Pole, help draft and mail a letter to jolly old Saint Nick, or hide The Elf on the Shelf all over our homes to remind the kids that Santa is watching. It's one of the few times when we're encouraged to lie to our children, to convince them that Santa is real.

It seems pretty harmless, right? What parent hasn't embellished a tall tale about Santa and his elves as a way to keep this childhood fantasy alive? I've known parents who wrote their children letters from Santa Claus, ordered reindeer food on the Internet, and baked miniature treats for the elves. As parents, we often view these merry gestures as a way to build our children's excitement before Christmas. But could there be a downside to participating in frivolous holiday fibs?

New research published in the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry reveals that lying to our kids about Santa Claus could actually damage their trust. The researchers—Christopher Boyle, Ph.D., and Kathy McKay, Ph.D.—warn that telling our children untruths, even when it's for fun, could affect our relationships with them.

"Children will eventually find out they've been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they've been told," Dr. Boyle says.

Should we tell them the truth?

How each family shares the Santa story with their children is fashioned around their own cultural and family beliefs. And even though Drs. McKay and Boyle caution against lying to our kids, it doesn't necessarily mean that we need to dampen the Christmas spirit by unveiling the truth about good old Saint Nick.

"I'm not planning to go through the streets of my hometown dropping leaflets through doors," Dr. Boyle says.

However, if our children ask if Santa really is real, depending on their age, we might consider telling them the truth. Children who ask questions about Santa's existence are already wondering if the jolly red fellow is fictitious, and at that point protecting their trust in us is more important than keeping a short-lived fantasy alive. Research also shows that truth telling sets the stage for our children to follow in our footsteps because truthful parents create honest children.

Using Santa as a Bribe

A large part of the Santa story relies upon the punitive concept that naughty children receive lumps of coal instead of toys and candy. But Dr. Boyle cautions parents against using Santa's upcoming visit as a way to get their children to behave. Relying upon a fictitious being to get our kids to brush their teeth, go to bed on time, and help with household chores could actually backfire, he says. When we try to gain control by telling our children that Santa's watching, we disarm our power as parents. Some kids might even find Santa's surveillance frightening. For perfectionistic children, the idea that someone is watching their every move could create heightened anxiety, because these kids often torture themselves to "behave" in a certain way. For those children, the holiday season ends up feeling less than joyful.

Celebrating Family Traditions

The beauty of imagination is that you can share the tradition of Santa with your children in a way that honors your family's values and shares socially conscious messages. For example, some parents describe the Santa fable as a story shared across generations and forgo the belief that he's a real human being. Others read books together that depict Santa as an environmentalist who's thoughtful of his carbon footprint.

Disclosing the Truth

When the time comes to reveal the truth that Santa doesn't exist, parents can turn to books to help them break the news. Many books share the story of St. Nicholas to explain Santa's origin and expand upon the real meaning of the Christmas holiday—sharing gifts as a way to express our love for family and friends. In the end, it's this tradition that we ultimately want to share with our children.

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