Here’s an interesting story: It’s from an Australian newspaper, citing a study published in psychiatric journal.
“In the December issue of the Psychiatric Bulletin, psychiatrist Lynda Breen wrote that the belief that Father Christmas "knows if you've been bad or good" helps teach children the difference between right and wrong.”
Dr. Breen is saying, from what I can tell, that teaching your kids to believe in Santa helps develop their moral character, because you can use Santa as a moral agent. Which I did often with my daughter* – as, for instance, when she was telling an obvious lie at age four.
I said, “Is that a lie?”
“No, it’s not,” she said, firmly, even though it obviously was.
“You know Santa crosses six presents off your list every time you tell a lie. You know that, don’t you?”
She gave me an extremely worried look. “Really?”
After a few moments of serious consideration, she asked, “How many presents do I have on my list?”
Now I suppose I used Santa the way Far Right Christians would use Mr. Jesus – as a kind of figure that wasn’t me, that knew when my kid was doing right or doing wrong.
But there are major differences between Santa and Mr. Jesus.
(1) Santa is a relatively benign threat. Screw up with Santa and he just won’t bring presents. Mr. Jesus will consign you to a lake of fire for ever and ever and ever. That’s sort of like threatening a four year old with a nuclear weapon, now, isn’t it?
(2) Santa goes away. That is, at about age five or six, the kid does, in fact, figure out that Santa’s not real. (Some kids will figure this out about Mr. Jesus, too, but many will not.) At this point the kid is in prime position to do an essential, important thing: internalize the moral code.
That’s vital. It’s vital because at this point the kid starts making herself act right. That is, the kid does what she should not because Jesus tells her to, but because she knows it is the right thing to do.
If the moral code is internalized, the kid has nothing to rebel against. If it’s Mr. Jesus or Daddy or the Pastor telling Kid what to do, Kid, come about age 13 or 14, is going to be rebelling up a storm. Or attacking herself or himself up a storm – some of them go that way. Or marrying an abuser – some go that way.
Or other things.
Dr. Breen also says that when kids figure out that Santa is mythical, this is also good for the kids – something I have also discovered to be true in my daughter’s case. She knows, now, that Santa, and the tooth fairy, and dragons, and so on, are all mythic critters, and this both interests her and gives her a kind of deep philosophical problem to wrangle with.
I'm all for giving six-year-olds deep philosophical problems to wrangle with, btw.
“Is Santa real?” she asks me.
“Well,” I say, “he’s real is a way. He’s real in the same way that love is real. Or fairness is real. Does fair exist?”
She thinks this over.
“Fair exists if people act fairly,” I say. (You can take the professor out of the classroom…). “Santa exists if enough people act like he does.”
She ponders this existentialist poser. Yes, I am giving my six year old existentialist fodder to chew on. And you know what? She likes it. She comes to me nine or ten days later and asks me if that is the same way people believe in heaven.
“Well, yes,” I say. “It is, I suppose.”
“So if enough people believe in heaven, does heaven exist?”
“Huh,” I say. “Good question. Jews don’t worry so much about heaven,” I point out, as a PSA. “Our business is mending this world.”
“I know, I know, I know. But if
enough -- ”
“I don’t know,” I said, stumped by a six year old. “What do you think?”
“I think it might,” she said. Then she said, “Kate believes in Heaven.”
Kate’s the one at her school whose mother thinks God doesn’t like Halloween.
“Yeah?” I say.
“So do a lot of people at my school.”
“Well, Jews don’t not
believe in heaven,” I say. “We just don’t think you should obsess about it all the time. We think if you’re always worrying about heaven, you know, it’s like always worrying about what you’re having for dessert. You don’t eat right if you’re always fixated on dessert. And also, it’s not what God made us for, heaven. He made us to mend this world.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And off she went again, still thinking deeply.
* I know, Jews aren’t supposed to have Santa. We have a Christian grandparent, so we do Santa too.