Children of truth

There’s a conversation I end up having almost every year around this time. At some point during that conversation, I say that I always try and tell my child the truth, and the person I’m talking to responds with the same look they’d probably give me if I said we speak nothing but Latin at home.

Every time this happens, it weirds me out just a little bit.

Why is it such a big deal that I have a healthy respect for the truth and want to foster that same respect in my child? If we all agree that the best way to teach children morality is to set a good example, then why do so many parents make an exception for lying?

I suspect that the answer to my second question is that my premise is flawed: We don’t all agree that the best way to teach morality is to set a good example. In particular, I don’t think you can set a good moral example if you:

I’ve seen parents do every one of those things, and I’ve seen every one of those things done many, many times. And every time I wonder how the parent doesn’t see what a terrible example they are setting. I can’t imagine lying to my child about something I wouldn’t want to be lied to about.

Which brings me to Santa Claus, because he’s how I end up in this conversation every year.

Even before we had a child, my spouse and I agreed that we weren’t going to pretend that Santa was real. It wasn’t even something we had to discuss since lying to our child was so obviously wrong that it was out of the question.

My child’s reaction was one of mild panic the first time I told a bedtime story about Santa. I was cut off after having barely started and asked, “That’s not real, is it?” I said it wasn’t, the tension brought on by the thought of some stranger breaking into the house on Christmas Eve went out of the room, and the story was well enjoyed after that.

“I think that’s terrible,” some people say to me. They’re under the impression that I’m raising an emotionless robot with no imagination. I respond that you don’t have to believe a lie to have imagination, and that my 14-year-old writes wonderfully entertaining letters to Santa every year. You don’t have to believe Santa is real to enjoy the story and tradition. I’d even argue that it takes more imagination to write a letter to someone you know doesn’t exist than it does to write a letter to someone you believe exists.

Others tell me that I have to give my child the “gift” of believing in Santa so that they will have a sense of wonder in their childhood. Just how high are these people setting the threshold of wonder that the world around us falls short? The sun burns with flame powered by its own mass. Flowers mindlessly react to the world around them. Creatures barely more intelligent than plants build complicated homes. Science uncovers new and wonderful truths daily. There are robots working all alone on other planets to help do that science. Isn’t there already more than enough wonder to go around?

Then there’s the “other children” argument. If my child doesn’t believe in Santa, won’t that cause conflicts with children who do believe? No it won’t — not if I raise my child with the understanding that it’s considered impolite to tell other people that Santa isn’t real, the same way that it’s impolite to go around telling people that God isn’t real. I have had exactly zero incidents in which my child has come into conflict with a child who believes in Santa. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of conflicts when one child discovers that Santa is a lie before that child’s classmates do.

I’ve had atheists try to justify lying about Santa by saying that they do it to teach their child that you shouldn’t believe everything people tell you. As an explanation, this falls flat with me. There are plenty of opportunities for children to realize that their parents aren’t always right without your having to manufacture another one. I doubt anyone would make this excuse to tell a lie that they didn’t enjoy telling, or didn’t enjoy watching their child innocently believe.

Most annoying of all, I’ve had people say that they doubt that I never lie to my child. They ask, for example, what I’d do if my child asked an age-inappropriate question about sex. I’ve been asked more than once a question along the lines of, “Are you really going to tell your four year old what a [slang for a sexual practice] is?” My answer is that no, I’m not. But I’m not going to lie, either. There are times when I’ve told my child — in perfect honesty — that the answers to some questions have to wait until much later.

The person I’m talking to generally objects that a child won’t be satisfied with an answer like that and will just keep asking. I respond that I’d rather deal with having the question come up again than deal with the consequences of telling a lie for my own convenience.

I’m sure there are plenty of people who remain unconvinced and think it’s harmless to lie about Santa. Maybe you’re right. But let me ask you a question, under what circumstances would you want your child to lie to you? Would you want your teenager laughing with friends about how entertaining it is that parents can be made to believe something completely ridiculous? Would you want your child to lie about something bad that happened on the way home from school or on a date because the truth was difficult or embarrassing? Do you want your child believing that the truth is only important when it’s convenient?

Personally, I’d rather have the truth.

Posted on December 13, 2012 at 9:39 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Atheists' problems · Tagged with: ,

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Rachael
    on December 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I agree with you 100%. It’s really important to model truth to children; and knowing Santa is a game doesn’t make it less fun.

    Interestingly, your argument is one I’ve heard more in Christian circles than atheist ones. In addition to a high regard for truth in the abstract, Christians also have to consider: if they find out we lied about Santa, how are they supposed to believe us about God?

    It particularly gets to me when parents try to fight against their children finding out about Santa, and insist or even promise that he’s real. I think that’s far worse than just teaching them Santa exists in the first place.

    In my childhood, we figured it out fairly early on but parents and children continued to play the game well into our teens, all knowing it was a game. I think my parents always spoke of Santa in a joking, nudge-wink kind of tone, and we just became more able to notice and understand the tone as we got older.

  2. Written by Autumn
    on March 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm
    Reply · Permalink

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