Skepticism

Old Fathers’ Tales

Last weekend I witnessed a couple with a newborn baby standing around a fountain. A precocious little girl of 5 or thereabouts approached the couple, she was infatuated with the baby. The fountain was hardly the Trevi Fountain (No, the photo below isn’t the Venetian in Vegas), but soon the fellow gave the little girl a nickel and instructed her to toss it into the fountain.

Trevi Fountain“Close your eyes first. Really tightly. Make a wish!  Remember, if you don’t close your eyes tightly and keep the wish to yourself, IT WON’T COME TRUE!”

He repeated these instructions insistently as the girl scrunched her eyes, her fists clenched. Then she threw the coin into the fountain and opened her eyes, frowning from the concentration involved. She really believed…

I don’t know why, but her earnest expression and determination touched me.  Maybe I thought it wasn’t this stranger’s place to plant a seed of superstitious stupidity into the kid’s head. Maybe I recalled an image of my mother telling me to pick up the silverware she dropped in the restaurant she worked in, because this was “good luck”. Maybe I thought of the hours I would spend in the garden, searching for a four-leaf clover after my father told me it was “good luck”.

My parents told me some silly whoppers – ghosts really exist, and Lucky my pet guinea pig was “living in the shed” for some two years…

Do skeptics tell their children these sorts of things? Do skeptics tell their kids about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny? Where does this lie on the continuum of fairy tale to bullshit?

Perhaps telling these stories is merely perpetuating a cute custom, or is it laying the foundation for future magical thinking? Many of the wrong and stupid things we’re ‘taught’ end up slithering into that fuzzy, hard to re-wire thing called our socialization. Then it becomes ‘normal’, or even ‘knowledge’.

If we’re religious, at what point have we moved from sharing a parable to telling lies for god? If we retell fables, at what stage do we go from keeping folklore alive to telling lies about the universe?

Or are they not lies but ignorance?

Dealing with folklore is a complex issue, some might say problem, for anthropologists, and especially cultural anthropologists. We have an emphasis on describing behavior, not prescribing it. It’s all good and well to watch the ceremonies and rituals, but at what point do you say that the sick man would be better off in the capital city’s hospital than being lashed with tree branches?

At what point do you observe and preserve the tradition, and at what point do you start saying, “That wasn’t a “witch” you just tied to a post and burned to death. That was a woman; someone’s wife,  mother, sister and daughter.”

I’m sure we all have our own opinions on these matters, and indeed, it should be left to the discretion of parents to shape the beliefs of their kids, and more importantly, encourage the development of the individual’s critical thinking skills. Hopefully this education isn’t influenced by strangers, or at least stupid strangers. Hopefully this education isn’t influenced by stupid parents either.

I’d be pissed off if the above turd ‘taught’ this old wives’ tale to my child. But if you caught him out, it could be an opportunity to teach some reason and rationale.

Whatever we think, it’s hard to look beyond our own culture and time…

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65 Comments

  1. I do, but my 7-year-old has a pretty good bullshit detector and calls me on it immediately. We had to have a conversation about who left the chocolates in his shoes on Dec 6 (we’re German) when he immediately told me that St. Nicholas didn’t do it. I admitted that I had done it, and that we do it to honour the memory of a man who did good things a long time ago. He accepted that and ate his chocolate for breakfast (which caused my partner to yell at both of us.)

  2. In “Hogfather”, Terry Pratchett says we need the small lies, like the tooth fairy and the hogfather (Santa in Discworld), to accept the big ones, like justice and mercy. That doesn’t sit 100% with me, but I think what he’s getting at is that it provides practice for a broader mind. It’s not honest, no. But I doubt there is a statistically significant number of people who, when they’ve learned it was a farce, had lasting damage, and judging from the wide amount of even skeptical parents who consider continuing the story with their children, something which is looked back on fondly.

    Incidentally, as a child I never really believed in Santa, wishing wells, etc., though I fervently believed in god. The rest seemed a bit too far-fetched for me.

  3. Also: If I decide to do such with my children, and some well-meaning person, skeptic or otherwise, decided it was their place to tell my kids it was a farce, I’d be applying liberal boot to their teeth. Encouraging critical thinking is one thing. Coming straight out with “Snape killed Dumbledore!” is something else.

  4. Well, as a kid, after watching “Clash of the Titans”, I grabbed my mom’s Edith Hamilton off the shelf and voraciously studied the Olympic family tree. as a horse-girl, I was completely taken with Pegasus (unicorn vs. pegasus? Pegasus every time. I mean a horn vs. FLYING? ), too. Even at 5 or 6, though, I had no delusion that any of that stuff was “real”.

    Anyway, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the myths at all.

    So, when I have kids, I plan on sharing all manner of mythology with them, presented as mythology.

    As far as things being “good luck”, I don’t think I’d really promote those little cultural traditions. Despite my early-onset skepticism regarding Big Stuff, I look back and can recall doing certain things that might actually have been a little OCD-ish (I have to get to that light on my bike before it turns green…), and wouldn’t want to foster that kind of stuff in my own kids. My grandma certainly contributed to those weird thoughts in me (um, she’s a professional clairvoyant..). And looking back, they were pretty powerful. And annoying.

  5. From what I gather on the telling of the small lies like Santa, et al within the skeptical community there seems to be three positions. These may or may not be standard, but they are the three I have observed.

    1.) the Penn Jillette position which is to not lie to your children under any circumstance.

    2) The Steven Novella Position, which is to not make a point of stating one way or another, allowing your child to discover the belief for his/her self. Then play along with it while encouraging the child to further investigate the claim for factualness. I personally like this position as it actively encourages critical thought and can at the same time provide some entertainment value for the adults as well as the children.

    3.) the Robert M Price/Michael Goudeau position. This is to outright lie to your child. Dr. Price in particular has gone so far as to have written a Santa Apologetic to maintain the belief as long as possible. This position, similar to #2 is meant to engender a certain level of critical thought as well as provide that whole fun of the season sort of thing. I don’t know if I care as much for this position, it can still be used in the same fashion as #2, but it may feel a bit wrong to those who don’t like the idea of lying to their children.

  6. @whitebird: I don’t know if having to get to a light before it turns green is ocdish unless of course you find yourself slowing down because it turned red and creeping along just to not get there too soon. I hate it when I catch a light just after it has turned red, and prefer catching it earlier, because I don’t like having to stop. This has on a couple too many instances resulted in me pulling maneuvers that were possibly a little bit nuts in the past and not just the distant past either. (oh, and I’m doing this on foot as opposed to on bike, but it’s basically the same thing. I am less crazy when I am driving for pretty obvious reasons.)

  7. My parents really pushed the folklore on me. I remember asking them all of the standard Santa Claus questions but every time they would make up an excuse to explain away my objection. I finally got them when I put a tooth I had lost in a plastic sandwich bag and held onto all night. When I caught my dad, he said, “I was afraid the toothfairy had forgotten, so I was helping.” I got histrionic- I screamed and cried and vowed that I would NEVER do that to my children. Twenty plus years later and my parents still tease me about it.

    In retrospect, I realize that it wasn’t the fairy tale that bothered me. It was that when I started thinking for myself and telling them why I wasn’t buying what they were selling they dismissed my critical thinking and made excuses. In the end, I think it’s possible that I’ll let my little ones hear the fairy tale- but the first question I get about plausibility- I’m giving it all up!

  8. @killyosaur42: With both of my kids, (13 and 10), I’ve taken more of a Steven Novella approach. When they ask about Santa, or the Tooth Fairy, or whatever, I’ll ask them questions like “what about Santa doesn’ t make sense to you?”

    The older one figured things out pretty quickly, and let it be known that she didn’t believe any more, and went so far as to go through her logic.

    The younger one makes a pretense of believing, but it’s fairly clear that at this point he’s just hedging his bets so that the swag keeps coming.

  9. You touched on a sore subject for me, which is probably surprising…innocent little wishes.

    When I was around 7 years old I had a kind of superstition thing going on. I had to do all kinds of rituals throughout the day so bad things wouldn’t happen to me. On top of that I would never make a wish because it would backfire, as I saw in misc genie shows. Not to be a downer, but it wasn’t healthy.

    So I have no room for that kind of stuff. If my kids (who are quite young now) show one ounce of superstition I will do my best to squelch it quickly.

    I also do what Novella does, if they want to believe in Santa I won’t say otherwise, but I sure have a hard time writing “from santa” on the present so I just make the stockings magically appear.

  10. @Tiki_Idyll: I sort of agree with you. Terry Pratchett has an ‘eye’ for those kinds of life truths, which is what make his Discworld books so compelling for me (not that they aren’t laugh-out-loud funny, too!).

    We “played” the Santa/Easter Bunny game with our girls growing up, but also let them have a wide varierty of literature, including folk tales and mythology from many cultures. They eventually figured out that it was all “make-believe” and joined in the spirit of it all. In other words, the Steve Novella position more or less.

    One thing that disturbed me about the xtains was that I was told that one strategy to “witness” to kids was to point out that their parents had “lied” to them about Santa Claus and then ask the kids if their parents had lied to them about that, what else might they be lying about (like that the xtians were full of it). That just seemed evil to me.

  11. When my children were little ( pre school ) one of my favorite night time rituals was to stare out the window , into the darkness, and we’d begin an interactive story that was full of fanciful impossibilities. The stories would evolve, night after night, into their own self starring science fiction sagas full of battles, escapes, and thought provoking twists and turns. But mostly they were FUN! We created memories of happiness that are part of my children’s (and mine ) father/son rock solid foundation.

    Years pass. Conversations change. Knowledge is conveyed. And both of my sons, now age 15 and 20 are smart, happy, and 100% skeptical of woo despite being a product of a mixed marriage ( my wife is a teeny bit of a woo believer at times ).

    Childhood is about IMAGINATION. We should always cultivate imagination. We can cultivate it by not talking about religion, Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or we can cultivate it by including aspects of present day fictions as above, or by incoorporating our own fanciful tales.

    Parenthood, in part, is about imparting age appropriate limits, rules, and information. As a child’s thought process becomes more abstract, THAT is the time to debunk. Til then … enjoy a memory with your child … as long as it makes them smile, as long as it helps them bond. Later on when you debunk … that too will be very rewarding. But there is no need to kill Santa Claus at a very young age. One only needs to undress him and understand what makes the legend tick at an older age. But leave that cool beard alone!

  12. If my parents hadn’t told me these little lies, I might have thought that everyone in this world would always be telling the truth. By telling me about Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and letting me figure it out on my own, they helped me develop my bullshit detector.

    I figured out that the Easter Bunny was fake pretty early on and my belief in Santa disappeared shortly after that. I figured out the Tooth Fairy was fake before I figured out Santa and the Easter Bunny, but I lied to my parents so they’d keep giving me money. More than once the Tooth Fairy was tired that night and accidentally left me a 20, so I was going to hold on to that belief for as long as it took to save up for games for my Nintendo.

  13. Dale McGowan, author of ” Parenting Beyond Belief” and “Raising Freethinkers” is definitely in the middle camp on Santa and such. I’m certainly allowing for as much “superstitious” thinking from my kids as they come up with, as long as I’m also teaching them to think critically about it, i think they’ll be ok.

  14. @killyosaur42: I tend towards Novella’s approach, though I have some sympathy for both Goudeau and Jillette’s positions. My wife encourages belief in things like fairies and angels and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and while I don’t actively discourage it I do always address it skeptically.

    My daughter will ask if I’ve ever seen a fairy, I say no. She’ll ask if I think they’re real I say “I’ve never seen one”. My MIL told her that the various dust motes etc you see in sunbeams are fairies, and she believed it for a while but figured out on her own that they weren’t.

    I do think it’s important for kids to figure out for themselves what is and isn’t real. We can guide and suggest but just telling them is in most cases not going to teach them anything.

    And of course if they figure out for themselves that Santa isn’t real even though all of the culture claims he is, they may come to the same conclusions about other mythical figures.

  15. I am not convinced that woo is necessary for kids to have fun with customary events. Halloween can be a ball without a belief that you are dressing up to keep evil spirits away or any other nonsense. Kids get pretty excited about birthday parties without being told they were found in a cabbage patch and the great cabbage worm is going to leave them presents once a year.

  16. @JayK: Haha, so your younger is taking the Pascal’s Wager approach?

    @QuestionAuthority: The thing that makes me laugh with Xians is the shunning of holidays, normally Halloween. There’s a bit of Jack Chick paranoia in all Xians.

    @JOHNEA13: Woo isn’t necessary for fun with events. But I don’t think that woo in small doses with children is harmful, either. The customary woo with holidays is diet woo, and people are expected to be free of such beliefs by ten.

    If you started making weekly sacrifices to Santa and went around trying to convert the non-santa-believers, that would be the point where harm would start coming in.

    I toy with the idea of making the claims as outrageous as possible with my own children. Like perhaps telling my kids about Hogfather instead of Santa. Though the Mrs. would probably kill me. ;)

  17. @JOHNEA13 : Halloween was just a fun dress up event for our kids. We never even talked aobut “evil spirits.” Their xtian friends certainly did. LOL

    I once tossed one of Heinlein’s quips at them: “One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.”

    (crickets)

  18. I think it’s wrong for parents to instill these false beliefs in their children’s minds. Sure, they may think that they’re doing good at the time, but they usually don’t think of the negative consequences that could stem from it later on. My Mom had me believing in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the easter bunny when i was little. When i found out they weren’t real, i was quite upset. I don’t think it sets a very good example when parents lie to their kids either. It’s basically letting them know that it’s okay to tell lies in order to make things seem better. While that may be the true for some things, i think honesty is truly the best policy in most cases. I think some kids may form some ill feelings of childhood or their parents for making them believe these kinds of things. I think i did for awhile. I may not be a parent, but i don’t think it is an easy job at all. I am happy that i’m not a parent, but if i ever become one at least i’ll have the opportunity to learn from my Mom’s mistakes with me. I really love my Mom though and we get along well today so that’s good. I just think certain things could have been handled better with me.

  19. I’ve wondered about this topic a lot. While I think it would be easy to say that I wouldn’t want to lie to my children at all, it almost seems cruel to deny a child the magical feeling of Christmas and Santa Claus and other childhood myths. I figured it out pretty early as a kid, and my mother didn’t lie to me when I asked, but I remember years that I believed in Santa as being some of the best.

    Another example- I went through a phase where I was really scared at night and wouldn’t sleep as a child, so my mother made me a quilt that she said had all her love for me inside of it and would protect me from anything. I never slept better.

    Being a skeptic, are these things wrong? Is it lying? Is there a way that you can preserve childhood whimsy without promoting superstition?

  20. @SicPreFix: Haha, exactly! Santa wears Coke’s colors, not Pepsi’s.

    @Melinda: I haven’t met a parent who hasn’t carefully weighed the potential negative consequences. Anecdotal, I know, but I think it shows that at least a good portion of parents do take it into consideration.

    I think that how upset a child gets is based on how much of the importance of whatever is placed upon the thing being real, and the child’s temperament.

    Of course, I would argue that sometimes it is okay to tell lies to make things seem better.

    I also think it’s pretty trite of a person to hold a grudge against their parents into adulthood for telling them about manifestations of holiday spirits.
    @leahlou: Yeah, I think most kids can figure it out pretty early on, and really don’t believe in it much earlier than they truly realize. (Which also reflects my atheism.) Also, I think the quilt with all your mother’s love for you inside is a beautiful thing, and a good example of the same sort of lie as Santa.

  21. I have a sister who is 3.5 years older (almost exactly). My mother has, on many occasions, mentioned the fact that, as we were growing up, I never believed in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or any of the other childhood myths. There were even times when I was 3 or 4 where she says she knew I knew they were lies, but I still participated because it was fun and for the benefit of my still-believing sister.

    Children aren’t nearly as gullible as many people think. They can be taught – with even just a wink and a nod – to enjoy the intentions and good will of a holiday without believing in the mythology.

  22. Once, before I decided to home school and just be done with the idiot school system we were in, a school counselor said to me, “Your children respect you. They believe what you say. If you would just tell them that school was good for them, they would be easier to deal with . . .” I replied, “I didn’t lie to them about god. I didn’t lie to them about Santa Claus. I didn’t lie to them about the government. I am not lying to them about school.”

    She was not amused. But even when I was Mormon, which I was when the kids were little, I admitted I did not know for sure about god, but I know knew for sure that Santa and the Tooth Fairy were tricks that most parents played on their kids.

  23. When my niece asked me out of the blue how may children Santa visits in one night, I didn’t have any problem with telling her “all children”. The very fact that she asked the question suggests to me that she is already thinking about what she’s been told and whether its possible. She’s only four and asks me questions like why there is night and day, how a light bulb works, etc. So to let her believe some harmless fairy tales now, won’t have a negative effect in the long term.

    I don’t think the specific facts/stories you teach kids is as important as giving them the tools to figure it all out for themselves eventually. I believed in Santa and my parents also innocently taught me all that “only use 10% of your brain” sort of stuff, but I figured it out evenually.

  24. Austin touched on something from my own childhood and I wonder how the others here would (or did) handle a similar situation.

    I am the oldest of 4 children, all fairly close in age. Consciously or not, my parents raised 4 very critical thinkers. However, they were not above supporting the Santa myth. Like many here, when I figured it out, they did not lie to me (I could go on along the same lines of many here about how it turned out for the positive in so many ways, but that would lengthen an already long post). HOWEVER, at that point, they were faced with a dilemma.

    Although I had the mental acuity to figure out that it was all just a story I did NOT have the maturity to recognize that it was a harmless little lie in the grand scheme. I didn’t feel betrayed, but I did not grasp then the larger meaning of it – meaning and significance that we are discussing here as adults. To me, it was a revelation…and understanding of another mystery of the world. I was so proud of myself I wanted to tell everyone what I just discovered…and that included my 3 younger sisters. My parents on the other hand wanted to let them enjoy it one or two more years (the youngest was just getting old enough to appreciate the customs) and here I was, bound and determined to wreck it for them.

    What ultimately happened was that they pulled me aside and gently but firmly explained a few things. First, they said that while Santa was not a real person and the magic feats were not real, what we meant when we talked about Santa was that feeling of goodwill that we all felt around the holidays. That Santa was an allegorical representation of “holiday cheer”. So in a sense, Santa was real…just not literal. Second, it was not my place to tell my sisters as I would wreck the fun for them twice; first by destroying their last year or two of a harmless belief and second by robbing them of the same joy of discovery I had made.

    Now that I am older, I’m happy I got to enjoy the fun for a while, revel in the eventual discovery of the truth, learn a thing or two about how these myths get started in the first place and finally that I was kept from destroying a child’s wonder (i.e. telling my sisters before they learned it for themselves). None of us is worse for having believed for a few years and in fact, are all probably better for having solved our first real mystery in life.

    To the others here…how did your parents handle the multi-child situation? How would you handle it with your own (assuming you allow the Santa myth in your households)?

  25. @leahlou: Is there a way that you can preserve childhood whimsy without promoting superstition?

    ——-

    Here’s the thing… why do we want to preserve childhood whimsy, and what does that even mean? Where do we get off deciding what lies are age appropriate, based on our own attitudes about how much we think that our children might enjoy living a lie, or that we will selfishly enjoy having them live a lie?

    The only lie I’ve knowingly participated in was the question of the “Bad Monkey” by the gate, and that’s only because I didn’t think the Highlander would believe me if I told him that there was no such thing. So I just went and checked. Besides, there are monkeys. What the hell I would have done if there really had been a monkey I don’t know.

    What were we talking about again?

  26. Just as a side note, there is nothing as creepy as a terrified toddler telling you that there is a bad monkey by the gate. Seriously. One minute you’re in a normal narrative, and then *BOOM*, you’ve moved to a John Carpenter movie.

    Maybe we should have some sort of way to keep our kids imaginations from infecting us.

  27. @dpaul: When my sister found out about Santa my parents enlisted her to help them keep the secret for me. For example, one year I wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid, but they were sold out and my parents wouldn’t be able to get their hands on one until after xmas, so my sister told me that the elves could make the doll bodies, but they didn’t have moulds for the heads and the head factory had burned down. I think for my sister it was like a game, or maybe it was like parental permission to mess with me, but we still laugh about that story.

  28. I didn’t have any formal religious upbringing. My parents came from different traditions (Mom’s family was Presbyterian, Dad’s was Jewish) and decided not to foist either one upon their children. They told me there was a God, but they also told me there was a Santa Claus, and once I outgrew my belief in the latter it wasn’t much of a stretch to decide that the former wasn’t real either. So, I’m not sure my parents did me a disservice in telling me about Santa Claus, as it certainly encouraged me to question authority.

  29. I have two kids. One is a pretty rational minded 7 year old, the other is a very imaginative 10 year old who believes in fairies and magic and other things. Which annoys the 7 year old to no end when his sister insists that her stuffed animal is REAL or yes, there really are fairies living in that stump.

    We never did Santa. It just didn’t sit well with me. But when my 10 year old was little, she wanted the tooth fairy so I went along and then started really getting into the lie, sending her letters from the tooth fairy every time she lost a tooth (that started after she read a book where that happened).

    My seven year old however, we never did tooth fairy with. It’s not his thing and he really doesn’t like supernatural lies like that. He still enjoys putting his teeth under his pillow though. He just wants the money ;-)

    I guess my feelings are that you have to take the personalities of the kids in mind. My daughter really loves the world of supernatural imagination and I wouldn’t want to deny her that. She knows her parents don’t believe in gods but she does and we can have intelligent conversations about it sometimes. She also knows (now) that the tooth fairy isn’t real. But she still appreciates it if I play along when she tells me that her stuffed bear is talking to me. So I do.

  30. @dpaul & foxmelis: I figured out Santa was fake at a young age. As I aged, I tried to tell my younger sister for years. Got a couple of beatings for it, because our mother didn’t want her to know, and she never believed me anyway. Then, sometime in her mid teens she came slamming into the house, screaming that we had lied to her about Santa. /facepalm

    Btw, she’s now a fundamentalist Christian whose daughter married a fundy preacher and they have their own church :/

  31. @gwenny: Is she, sometime in her mid-life crisis, going to come slamming into your house screaming that you’d lied to her about god? >;)

    @ShannonCC: I think the conundrum skeptical parents face is how close do you toe the rational line? Some folk project that they take the view that anything other than outright, blatant living with empirical reality (“no, honey, you’re bear doesn’t really talk”) is a dangerous compromise that will lead to your children becoming Jenny McCarthy loving, Oprah-O eating Woo machines.

    Terms like “the Santa thing” or “the Tooth Fairy” are very imprecise, as we assume what we grew up with is the “normal” version. What I see as acceptable woo for my children is things which are presented in a manner so blatantly outrageous that a child should pick up that it’s a game without you necessarily needing to tell them — they might not know quite how you got the money under their pillow, but they know it wasn’t Fairies Inc.

    I don’t expect my children to believe Santa (or the Hogfather) are actually responsible for presents, nor that if they step on a crack, they’ll give their mother a spinal fracture.

  32. “Some folk project that they take the view that anything other than outright, blatant living with empirical reality (”no, honey, you’re bear doesn’t really talk”) is a dangerous compromise that will lead to your children becoming Jenny McCarthy loving, Oprah-O eating Woo machines”

    True. Actually, there are a lot of things that parents think are black and white, this included. What my kids have taught me is that they’re not blank slates and their individual personalities make a difference way earlier than I’d ever thought before I had two such different kids. When I only had the one I also believed if I didn’t do everything “right” it would totally screw her up. Then I had number two who popped out into the world night and day different from his sister. I relaxed a bit after that.

    I sound like I’m going off on a tangent, but even though I have read opinions on what you said up there, I think the reality is that it’s the day to day example we give and the little conversations that really make a difference. But when it comes to nature vs. nurture, I am now of the opinion that nature matters a lot more. But again, that’s my opinion based on a study of two, so not very scientific ;-)

    My daughter, by the way, did 100% believe in the Tooth Fairy for awhile. Now she is pretending about fairies and her stuffed animal (no, she’s not really hearing voices, lol!) but when she was younger, she did really believe. My son, from a very young age, was a non-believer, no matter how hard his sister tried to make him believe.

  33. @ShannonCC: Yeah, I agree. It really surprised me after my second was born how different they are right from the start. Noticeable aspects of each of my children’s personalities were apparent from the very start. I expected that they’d be a lot more similar, at least while they were less than a month old, but nope! Completely different. It’s almost as if they were separate little people… <,<

  34. A poster on the about.com atheist/agnostic forum has a great story she shares around Giftmas time. It’s about how she handled the Santa thing. When her oldest was maybe 8 years old or so, she sat him down and told him the “Secret of Santa.” Basically she explains Santa as representing the spirit of selfless giving. She asked him to choose a person to give an anonymous gift to, and he chose the mean old lady down the street. He anonymously gave her a pair of slippers, which he later saw her wear. It’s a lovely story, and the son helped tell the story to the younger siblings when they were ready to learn “the Secret”.

    I don’t recall ever believing in Santa. I supposedly did believe when I was very young, but apparently my brother saw our dad eating Santa’s cookies and figured it out. He of course then informed his younger sister. No trauma or resentment from either of us.

  35. @QuestionAuthority: True, but a child too young to ward that sort of assault off is also less likely to be affected by strange christians. Generally it’s the older (14-17 yo) that the evangelicals evangelize to and even then they generally only get maybe one or two non evangelicals to join their cause. The hit rate for most forms of evangelism is very low.

  36. @ShannonCC: But she still appreciates it if I play along when she tells me that her stuffed bear is talking to me. So I do.

    ———

    I’m going to say that these are totally different cases. A child who imagines that their stuffed bear is talking knows very well that the stuffed bear is not talking. It’s a game: they know it’s a game, you know it’s a game. That’s why it’s called “play”.

    Santa is more like a “trick” or a “test”, the way that people here are describing it. They tell the kid that Santa is real, and wait for the kid to realize its a put on. Sort of like an initiation rite of some kind. Which is fine, if you have the sort of kid who takes well to that, but it doesn’t actually have any benefits.

    If you want your kids to learn that adults lie, you can teach them that without being the adults that lie. If you want them to learn that people believe weird things, you don’t have to teach them to believe weird things. And if you want to teach them to question their beliefs, you can always question their beliefs yourself and encourage them to question yours… without presenting them with a set piece in the form of a trick.

  37. @leahlou:
    I don’t think your mother lied to you about the quilt. Your fear was real, even if it wasn’t rational. Her love for you is real and since she loves you, she couldn’t let you suffer in fear. So, even though you thought the quilt was full of some kind of tangible “love” it was a product of your mother’s love.
    I can’t think of a better way to alleviate a child’s fear. Children are powerless in their world and they know it. They fear the unknown, because so much of the world is new to them. You can’t educate them about everything overnight; it will take time to collect that knowledge. Just telling them there is nothing to be afraid of because monsters (or whatever) aren’t real, even if it is true, is not going to help. So you tell them there is nothing to be afraid of because you are there to protect them. And that is just as true.

  38. I grew up always doing holidays with my dad’s family, because we all lived relatively close (my mom’s is all over the country, dad’s is in the same state). My dad’s little brother’s daughter is a year and a half younger than me, the only female cousin on either side of the family that’s anywhere near my age. (And I have a total of twenty five first cousins.) We always were in holiday stuff together. Easter baskets, letters to santa and stockings, matching easter and christmas dresses for years and years – when we were very little we also had matching christmas nightgowns. I’m not sure what we thought the grownups were doing on easter when someone distracted us and the curtains over the sliding glass door was closed, but I do remember when I was seven accidentally walking in on my grandmother putting our easter baskets together on her bed. (She told me the easter bunny was very busy she she helped him some.) I naturally immediately told my cousin, which apparently annoyed out parents and grandparents :P

    I believed in Santa for longer, though, because always, despite the fact that my parents weren’t in the house after I was when we left for christmas at my grandparents’, when we got home, again them not in the house first, our stockings would be full there. I still don’t know how they did that.

    I don’t remember when I figured out the tooth fairy. Maybe when I found a ring box full of my lost teeth my my mum’s jewelry.

    But all that didn’t harm me at all, I never was annoyed that they had lied to me. I think I always understood it as something that the kids should humour the adults about because the grownups enjoyed doing it. Thus I didn’t comment that the from santa tags on the presents were obviously in the handwriting or my grandma or my aunt.

    I wish you could somehow keep kids from believing in monsters in the dark, though. I’m seventeen and no matter how logically I know that there are not monsters in every shadow….. I still have to always sleep under a blanket because it’s safe from the monsters. (How does every kid ever come to that conclusion independently?)

    Anyway, long rambly comment! My militant atheist fiance and I, if we ever have kids, may well play down that sort of thing entirely. Really, kids down’t need five tons of presents every year. I have about three times as much stuff as actually fits into my bedroom because people gave me too much stuff.

    I’m not entirely sure if I made any kind of point here. I talk too much :P

  39. I’ve never thought about it before, but that whole “don’t tell anyone or it won’t come true” thing is basically the best possible way to create reporting bias in existance. If it happens then you can tell us afterwards but if it doesn’t, telling people will stop it from coming true. Thus you are forbidden from reporting it unless it’s a success, and any negative report is removed from the data set as it has broken the rules. Genius.

  40. My parents didn’t tell me a lot of bullshit as a kid, but I certainly got exposed to a lot of it from other kids at school, the television, books about “real ghosts” (I still remember asking the librarian for books about “real ghosts” and her humoring me by searching for them even as she said “I don’t think there’s such a thing”), my preschool teacher who made us pray at lunchtime… Hell, my friend once had me believing she had telekinetic powers that only worked when my eyes were shut.

    I turned out okay.

    But then again, that wasn’t from my parents and parents sort of have more control over what you do and don’t believe at that age.

    Still, even at that age I’d occassionally rebel against their telling me that x was just my friends screwing with me to make me think they were actually magic(k)al.

    I think that even if you raise your kid without telling them about Santa Claus, they’ll still be influenced by the culture to want to believe in some way. I guess I just wouldn’t have the personal parenting style to tell my hypothetical kids stuff about fairies, but I wouldn’t get worked up into a rage if they came home telling me about how there’s a fairy princess living in the garden that gives unicorn powers to all that believe.

    At some point, though, they will have to grow up. I think I’d put my foot down at age twelve.

  41. @Shiyiya:…a ring box full of my lost teeth my my mum’s jewelry.

    —————

    I actually find that creepier than the Bad Monkey. The only thing that would be creepier is a sort of reverse evil tooth fairy bad monkey hybrid that steals your teeth in the dark and then buries them in a ring box. Or possibly buries them in your head, in the backyard, but in that case why pull them out in the first place?

    I have to start thinking about something else at night.

  42. Catfurniture : I like the “secret”
    Elles : no putting feet down please that does not support critical thinking :)

    Blindly following fairytales is the same as blindly following the word of the bible (as opposed to the gist). Very sad and no arguement there. But I do believe that we should respect our past, knowing a past is the key to the future. Stories and myths provide a link to our predessesors. I once remeber the odd “athiest” kid whose parents pulled them out at the first sign of religion, the kid always felt rejected and isolated. Better to let kids particpate and share the “secrets” and facts behind the myths, encouraging critical thinking rather than bubble bursting. I found that a few of the “athiest” kids ended up doing an absolutely fabulous and “finding” religion as they thought they were missing something. As for tooth fairies and coin tossing I couldnt in good faith instill this but if they pick this up maybe you can encourage them to figure it out for themselves.

  43. I think I had a harder time accepting that Santa didn’t exist than god. At least with Santa there was some sort of physical manifestation in the form of presents on Christmas morning.
    The initial heartbreak though didn’t break me. And overall I’ve been glad that I had a little fantasy in my early life. I’m not a stick-in-the-mud, I still celebrate Christmas despite being and atheist, and I still wish on stars, and I still try not to step on cracks while strolling down the sidewalk. For me, a little whimsy is one thing, but giving yourself over to complete delusion is a whole other ballgame. Without a bit of make believe I don’t know if today I would be able to appreciate sci-fi, or fantasy or any of the other things that make ones fanciful mind churn.

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