Everybody else is doing it, too.
My four-year-old is big into the trappings of Christmas—the books and songs, decorations and obviously presents. But when my mother-in-law offered to take her to see Santa, Kai said nu-uh. The next night, as we were settling in to read bedtime stories, Kai related the incident. YiaYia had this idea, she told me, sticking out the very tip of her tongue at the thought of paying a visit to the right jolly old elf.
"You don't want to see Santa?" I asked, although it wasn't all that surprising. Kai is naturally standoffish, especially around men—big, bearish ones above all.
She shook her head slowly, still with the tongue just the tiniest bit out, the nose almost imperceptibly wrinkled. Santa's scary, she finally confided. She didn't want to see the guy. She just wanted him to come do his thing on Christmas Eve and get out quick.
But Santa's so jolly, I said, already a quarter asleep, just barely keeping the conversation alive.
More head shaking. Then, after a long silence: "He'll say I'm bad."
"Why would he say that?" I asked, surprised out of my doze.
"Because I'm bad," she said simply. No pout, no whine. This was not a bid for attention, but in Kai's mind, a straightforward fact.
All I could think was, oh man am I crappy parent. My child thinks she's bad, and why? Because I've been overly critical. Busy with work and babying the baby, I've been short with Kai; expecting too much, and letting her know when she's not living up to it. I wrapped her in a bear hug.
"You're not bad. You're wonderful," I said. "You're my love."
This Santa character was kind of…what? I'd always taken him for granted. But to what end? What's the price we—or rather, our children—pay for growing up with false beliefs perpetuated by their parents?
In a recent issue of Lancet Psychiatry, Christopher Boyle, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter, and Kathy McKay, of Australia's University of New England, argue that the Santa fib may erode the bond between children and their parents. They write: "But adults are not meant to lie! However, you are aware that they have, so as a child you also consider what else have they lied about...If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?"
In other words, will our children trust us about the important things after we've lied to them about the "jolly man who apparently bends time and space to deliver presents to every child in the world on Christmas"?
And what's more—is Santa just a form of parental laziness? "It is a method of discipline used by many adults that gains momentum closer to Christmas day," write Boyle and McCay. "It is made clear that no child can hide from the North Pole's National Security Agency-style vigilance—an altogether terrifying thing when considered as an adult."
I admit, it was kind of a help to have a "bad cop" that wasn't either me or Papa—and I confess I did ask, once or twice, what Santa might think when he saw Kai grabbing a toy from the baby. But after her confession, I started to feel a twinge of guilt. Maybe Santa was excessively heavy-handed, a kind of police-state authority figure that was just too intense for more sensitive imaginations? Just Google "crying with Santa" to see the many adorable faces of abject fear. Those writhing, desperate would-be escapees are good for a chuckle, but they also beg the question: Why are we doing this again?
Why am I lying to my child, watching her eyes dart back and forth, the cogs in her intelligent little brain turning in an attempt to piece together these strange things I'm telling her?
Well, for starters, I don't feel like I have much of a choice. There do exist some earnest parents who find a way to opt out of the shenanigans, or so I hear. But in my world, it makes no difference that I happen to be Jewish—Santa is the kingpin, the top dog, the all-American icon, beloved in red households and blue, the wellspring of a veritable canon of songs and literature, the captor of my daughter's imagination, and he's coming to town.
Like it or not, "Santa Claus is in our culture," says Benjamin Siegel, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine. "Just like Finding Nemo is in our culture." Every culture has its mythical figures. The Greeks have Zeus. We've got an orange talking fish and an obese guy in red velour.
My husband Joe's one halfhearted attempt at resistance didn't go well. He tried to stem the tide of pre-holiday gifts coming into our house, objecting to a battery-powered book that sings Christmas carols—and his mom threatened to kill him. I believe her exact words were, "If you ruin Christmas for her, I'll kill you."
Of course, our concern is with our child. Joe can defend himself. To find out if we were doing irreparable harm to Kai, I called three professionals. And all of them agreed: The harm is in my head.
"That kind of fear is really rooted in an adult perspective," says Erika Christakis, a former preschool director and author of The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need from Grownups. "Playing along with your kid about Santa is not the same as lying to your child about something really major—like, Oh no, you thought that was your father and it's really not! They're different things, and children are very capable of understanding that."
The good news is, you don't have to passively accept some industry stooge barging into your house with a pile of crap made in China. Sure, Santa's always going to be first and foremost the guy who brings the presents, but you can use the symbol of Santa to represent whatever you want him to, Siegel reassures. Rudolph, who's funny looking and gets teased, can be a special-needs reindeer who finds his place; Santa can be a model of generosity; gift-giving, perhaps to the needy, can foster empathy. Kids who hate writing might get excited about penning a letter to Santa. He's your prop—use him, lean on him, why not? He can help overworked, over-wired parents connect with their kids.
"It's hard for adults to always get on that level with kids," says Stephanie Wagner, licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone's Child Study Center. "What is it like to be four or five? How do you pretend, see the world through their eyes?"
Santa can be your ambassador to La La Land, that playful place where the boundary between fantasy and fiction is porous. You know it looks like more fun than where we hang out.
And the potential for harm—that damage that Boyle and McKay worry that children will incur when they learn their parents are liars—is easy to diffuse. Just don't drag out the fiction, says Christakis. When your kids show signs that they're ready to give it up—when they start getting into the fine details, asking lots of questions—avoid the temptation to get agitated or concoct ridiculous scenarios.
Just say, "What do you think?" advises Christakis. "Which is actually a good response to pretty much anything. Help them answer their own question."