“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
As the pre-Christmas hype is building, I have seen more and more news articles with headings like “Don't tell children Father Christmas is real because lying to children could damage them, warn experts” and “Lying About Santa Claus Could Undermine Kids' Trust In Their Parents, Say Psychologists.” The media have been writing about an essay that was published in the The Lancet Psychiatry by UK psychologists Christopher Boyle and Kathy McKay. The essay argues that we shouldn’t lie to our children about Father Christmas because it damages our relationships with them and stops us from being relied upon as “guardians of wisdom and truth.”
This seems like an odd concept to me; all of my childhood Christmas memories are of thinking it was so magical that Santa could come down the chimney with his elves, flying on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Even when I found out the truth about Father Christmas I still loved trying to keep the secret from my little sister and brother, even if it did take a bit of magic out of Christmas for me. I decided to have a look at data to see if there is any evidence that telling children that Santa is real might be damaging for them.
The main argument against telling children about Father Christmas is that lying to children makes them mistrust their parents. It is true that research has shown that children mistrust adults who lie to them. Researchers from the University of Rochester in New York set up a situation in which the experimenter promised the child new art supplies and then either delivered on that promise (i.e. was shown to be reliable) or did not deliver (i.e. lied to the child). Children were then tested on the classic marshmallow task. The experimenter gave each child one marshmallow and told them that they were going to go and get more marshmallows. The experimenter told the child that they could have a second one, only if they could wait and refrain from eating the one they were given until the experimenter came back. The results showed that children who had previously been lied to by the experimenter only waited 3 minutes to eat the marshmallow, while children who had not been lied to waited on average 4 times longer! In this study, however, it was a stranger who lied to the children, and the only experience with this adult they had to base their trust on was the previous lie they had told. We don’t know whether the results would be the same if it was their parents who had lied to them.
The authors of these anti-Santa articles all seem to be working under the assumption that children believe lying is wrong in all circumstances, and have no concept of a socially acceptable or so called “white lie”. There is, however, some research to contradict this assumption. Victoria Talwar and colleagues from Canada gave children between the ages of 3 and 11 a gift that they knew the children did not want (i.e. a bar of plain white soap). When the researchers asked the children if they liked their gift nearly 70% of children lied, even without being told to by their parents. This percentage rose to nearly 90% when parents told their kids to tell a “white lie”, suggesting even very young children are aware that it is sometimes ok to lie. As children got older, the likelihood of them telling a lie also increased; 74% of preschoolers (age 3 to 5) told a “white lie,” while 84% of children aged 9-11 knew that it was ok to lie to prevent hurting someone’s feelings.
Boyle and McKay also do not acknowledge that Father Christmas is not the only lie that parents tell to their children. In fact, in one survey from the USA found that 78% of parents reported lying to their children at least once, despite the majority of them reporting that they were strongly committed to teaching their children that lying is wrong.
So, what does all of this mean for poor old Father Christmas? Parents have been telling their children about him for hundreds of years and Boyle and Mckay’s opinion is just that, an opinion. There is no empirical data to suggest that lying about Santa is harmful to children. Ultimately the only person who can decide whether you want your children to experience the delight that comes from the magical fantasy is you, the parent.
It doesn't take much googling to work out that sleep is one of the biggest challenges for new parents. There is a huge market for products that claim to help babies sleep (noise devices, self-help books, baby wraps), however, according to some media coverage from a few years ago, research shows that it is best to let your baby "cry it out". Media headlines like "Let crying babes lie: Study supports notion of leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep" and "Study shows 'crying it out' is best for babies" for some reason didn't sit right with me. I looked into it and found that this research was published in Developmental Psychology, which is a really reputable journal. But the journalist went a bit too far.
In the media coverage of the story, the journalists report that at 6 months, two thirds of infants slept through the night . Those that didn't, however, the transitional sleepers, were more likely to be boys, their mothers were more likely to describe their temperament as difficult, they were more likely to be breastfed (this didn't sit well with breastfeeding advocates) and their mothers were more likely to be depressed. The author Marsha Weinraub from Temple University is quoted as suggesting that ...
"The best advice is to put infants to bed at a regular time every night, allow them to fall asleep on their own and resist the urge to respond right away to awakenings."
Is this the take home message from the research? Or is this what Dr Weinraub responded when the journalists bullied her into telling them some advice for parents? I can just hear it now...
"So Dr Weinraub, what does your research suggest parents should do about their baby who wakes in the night?"
The title of the original article gives it away.
Weinraub et al., (2012). Patterns of Developmental Change in Infants' Nighttime Sleep Awakenings from 6 through 36 months of age. Developmental Psychology, 48, 1511-28
I don't even have to read the methodology to know that this research has nothing to do with the pros or cons of controlled crying. It is obviously a descriptive developmental study about age-related changes in sleep behaviour across infancy, not about parenting or sleep training. There is nothing in this article that suggests leaving infants to cry themselves back to sleep is either good or bad. This is a case of a quote from the author being used to mislead readers about the true nature of a research finding and is an example of terrible science journalism.
So what does this study tell us about infant sleep development?
In a large longitudinal study, parents were questioned about their infants' sleep behaviour when the babies were 6 months, 15 months, 24 months and 36 months of age. In addition, measures of attachment, temperament, breastfeeding, maternal depression, maternal sensitivity, father presence, illnesses, family size, poverty, childcare, maternal education, and martial conflict were taken.
Models of developmental change in sleep behaviour identified two groups of infants; SLEEPERS were those who slept through the night from 6 months and whose sleep behaviour was didn't change across development. These children represented 66% of the group. In contrast, the TRANSITIONAL SLEEPERS were those children who woke several times during the night at 6 months, however, their night waking improved with age, such that by 18 months their sleeping did not differ from the SLEEPERS group. Those in the TRANSITIONAL group were more likely to be boys, breastfed at 6 and 15 months, and had more difficult temperaments. Mums of transitional sleepers were also more likely to be depressed and have partners with poor health. Children were more likely to come from large families and spent less time in day care at 9 months.
The authors concluded that there are two distinct developmental profiles in sleep development but note that it is unclear what the implications of these patterns of change are. Given that the transitional group do not differ from the sleeper group at 18 months, these findings may be absolutely inconsequential. All children learn to sleep through the night eventually, and it is possible that the length of time that it takes them to do so doesn't make a difference. Alternatively, it may be that sleep in transitional children may continue to differ qualitatively. For example, the effects of anxiety-producing events on children's ability to sleep may differ during childhood. I think that this is an interesting empirical question.
The issue of breastfeeding is one that the authors do speculate on in the discussion. While they suggest that breastfed infants were more likely to wake in the night past 6 months of age, they acknowledge that their data does not speak to whether that was because of hunger or because of breastfeeding interfering with learning to self soothe.
I think this is a really interesting descriptive study and it is a pity that was butchered by the media. I was surprised that as many as 67% of infants were waking one night per week at 6 months and wonder whether parent report is the most accurate way to measure this. Perhaps actigraphy would be useful in getting an objective measure of age-related changes in sleep behaviour. Letting your baby cry it out is one way of teaching them to sleep through the night, however, this particular piece if research certainly does not speak to whether this is a good or bad thing to do.
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.