“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.
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.