Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Santa delusion

reposted from:;jsessionid=NHDNBABANFND

Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.

The Santa delusion

  • 22 December 2007
  • news service
  • Gail Vines
AS CHRISTMAS DAY draws near, parents across the world set the stage for the arrival of Santa Claus. It is a time-honoured cultural conspiracy that most of us grew up with; a tradition that makes Christmas a magical time for youngsters. But is it really just harmless fun? Is it right to systematically deceive children, only to shatter the illusion later?

The deception may have been around for centuries, but these days it goes far beyond simple storytelling. There are still letters to Santa and visits to his grotto, but now kids can fly to Lapland for a private session with Santa, receive emails and personalised video messages from Santa's workshop, and use the internet to track his progress around the globe. Yet even as the Santa myth grows ever stronger, many modern parents are growing uncertain, says Dale McGowan, a "critical thinking" educator based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tom Flynn, editor of the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry, believes

it is unfair to trick children with stories of a magical gift-giver, reinforced by "evidence", such as empty glasses of milk and half-eaten mince pies by the Christmas tree. "Adults often stage elaborate deceptions, laying traps for the children's developing intellect,"
Flynn says.
Worse, parents may threaten youngsters with Santa's wrath if they misbehave, or punish them if they share their suspicions with their siblings. "It encourages lazy parenting and promotes unhealthy fear,"
he says.

To top it all, Flynn reckons

the myth makes children more acquisitive and selfish and he cites a study of children's letters to Santa, which were filled with demands for material things.
The only good thing, he concludes, is that
unmasking Santa might help to inoculate kids against supernatural beliefs.
In his best-seller, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes a similar point. "Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents tell them," he writes. Children should "toss God aside at about the same age that they toss Santa Claus aside".

The difference is, of course, that even children of religious parents are meant to figure out that Santa isn't real. So how should parents go about coming clean without scarring their offspring for life? "This culturally pervasive myth is designed with an expiration date,"
says McGowan, who edited a new self-help guide, Parenting Beyond Belief.
When children start to ask questions about Santa, parents should encourage them to air their doubts and reason it out for themselves. McGowan isn't convinced that uncovering the lie does children any harm. "My son was relieved when he'd worked it out - the world made sense again."

In fact, while children may seem gullible, they actually have a better grip on the distinction between fantasy and reality than most people realise, says psychologist Jacqueline Woolley of the University of Texas, Austin. "We found that from the age of 4 children use many of the same cues adults use to distinguish fantasy from reality."

So if children are so smart, why do they believe in Santa Claus, almost universally, from the age of 3 until they are 7 or 8? Woolley believes it's because the adults they count on to provide reliable information about the world introduce them to Santa. Then friends, books, TV and movies shore up that belief, along with the "hard evidence" planted by their parents.

Only when the adults stop reinforcing the story does it crumble, she says. "Children do a great job of scientifically evaluating Santa, and adults do a great job of duping them,"
she says.
"As we gradually withdraw our support for the myth, and children piece together the truth, their view of Santa aligns with ours," she argues. "Perhaps it is this kinship with the adult world that prevents children from feeling anger over having been misled."

Reassuringly, most children seem to cope with their disillusionment remarkably well, and may even experience a sense of achievement at having worked it out for themselves. It is the parents who feel sad when the truth is out,
says Carl Anderson, an educational psychologist also at the University of Texas, Austin, who interviewed 52 children who no longer believed in Santa Claus. In his study,

"parental encouragement for the child to believe was very strong, but children generally discovered the truth on their own at the age of 7".

It's when parents continue the deception for too long that trouble looms. "Children may be more ready to give up the Santa myth than their parents are,"
says Bruce Henderson, a child psychologist at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. "Let the child provide the cues," he says.

Some researchers believe that

this festive skulduggery could actually benefit children. "Maintaining nice fantasies is part of a long tradition, part of growing up,"
says Pat Doorbar, an independent child psychologist based in north Wales.
"I don't think it is lying; it's making up a very pleasant story to help children enjoy an experience."

Belief in Santa can also be beneficial in helping children develop a healthy imagination,
argues Cindy Dell Clark, a cultural psychologist at Penn State University at Brandywine. She has studied chronically ill children and finds that they use their capacity to suspend disbelief as a means of coping.

John Kremer, reader in psychology at Queen's University Belfast in the UK, agrees.

"Santa Claus is part of the mythology of childhood, which is full of white lies," he says, and Santa may have a useful social role to play.
Kremer cites the work of the American psychologist George Homans, who argued decades ago that all social relationships are based on reciprocity and the balancing of rewards and cost. This is starkly revealed at Christmas, says Kremer. Each gift must be carefully matched in value with another, each card must be met with a card, or you risk embarrassment or worse. "Children find themselves in this intricate web of exchange without the necessary social skills, nor indeed the resources, to become active participants."

Santa is the perfect solution. "Because Santa gives presents to children but expects nothing in return, he protects them from the minefield of social exchange known as Christmas," Kremer says. "This allows children to learn the ropes of gift-giving, without having to play an active role."

Of course, it is probably no coincidence that the Santa myth - what Kremer calls "this unique secular product of western capitalism" - lends itself so neatly to materialism. Believing in a nice man who brings you expensive gifts is a neat introduction to the materialistic culture you will grow into. This, Kremer says, explains "the massive popularity of the story of Santa Claus, and the perplexing question as to why we should encourage those in our care to believe, often despite whispered misgivings".

It may seem depressing to start children on the road to materialism at such a tender age, but consider the alternative. You could resist the tide of commercialism and limit Santa's gifts to the traditional orange and sweets in a stocking. Trouble is, it may not bring you much in the way of peace and goodwill.

From issue 2635 of New Scientist magazine, 22 December 2007, page 36-37

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