Make-believe: is it ok to tell your kids little white lies?
Sarah Tennant weighs up the arguments for and against make-believe.
Did you know that dachshunds (sausage dogs) continue to grow longer and longer for their entire lives? Eventually they are so long that their tummies start to drag on the ground, so they sprout extra pairs of legs in the middle to hold themselves up. A really old dachshund can have six or seven pairs and be as long as a school bus! However, for some reason when you’re out and about, you mostly only see the short, four-legged puppies.
So I told my small children, and so they cautiously believed for several glorious years ... until their traitor of a father gave the game away. Not that he, as the inventor of the elusive but ravenous forest-dwelling umu, has any moral high ground. And we were jointly responsible for perpetuating the myth of New Zealand’s own cryptid, the Giant Death Pigeon, who lives in Wellington and preys on unwary tourists who wear red. (His mate was shot and killed long ago by a British redcoat; it’s a truly tragic backstory.) In short, we lie to our kids for fun. In our defense, everybody else is doing it.
‘Fantasy lying’ – lies involving supernatural phenomena and mythical creatures – appears to be an old and cross-cultural phenomenon. It can fill any number of overlapping roles from prank to cultural legacy to threat to teaching tool.
In earlier times, ‘threat’ and ‘teaching tool’ were the genres of choice. Parents of previous centuries appear to have been happy to scar their kids psychologically as long as it kept them physically safe, or even just well-behaved. So monsters were invented and vividly described to warn children of the perils of everything from deep water to whining. There were creatures who preyed upon children who went outside at night; creatures who attacked children who sucked their
thumbs, or refused to go to bed, or were just generally naughty.
If you think the Elf on the Shelf spying on kids is creepy, try the H’awouahoua, an Algerian chimera who features a lobster claw, goat horns, snake hair, an ape-like face and eyes of flaming spit. Children who walk alone in the dark get killed and eaten by the H’awouahoua, who then patches his clothes with their skins. Ah, whimsy.
To this day, many non-Western cultures are still happily warning their tender offspring about bogeymen.
But somewhere along the line, Western culture decided this was a bit, well, yikes. We wouldn’t dream of telling our child the monster under the bed would eat her if she got up in the night, though we might make Rescue Remedy-laced ‘Monster Spray’ to keep her nocturnal fears at bay.
Not that we don’t still frighten our children into obedience – we just use more mundane threats. “Hold my hand or you’ll get squished by a car” is, technically, quite a bald and brutal statement, but it seems gentler than, “Don’t go near deep water or Green Jenny will entangle you in her hair and drag you down to eat you with her razor-sharp teeth.”
Our modern squeamishness about scaring or manipulating children via fantasy even extends to fairly mild moral lessons. The original Easter Bunny (German, and a hare) actually judged children, and only bestowed bounty on the well-behaved ones, while the modern version hands out chocolate indiscriminately. And it’s hard to imagine even the worst rapscallion of a child receiving coal, let alone a switch, in his stocking on Christmas Day. He’d end up in therapy!
Interestingly, the Elf on the Shelf, which was explicitly marketed as a cutesy reminder for kids to behave, barely came into existence before the fun, whimsical aspect of arranging the Elf each day (with presents and treats for the children, no less!) completely eclipsed the 'reporting children’s behaviour back to Santa' aspect. Many parents simply don’t ‘do’ that bit at all – the Elf exists only to get into Pinterest-worthy mischief every night with the icing sugar and peppermints. We’ve come a long way!
And for some conscientious parents, even affirming the existence of Santa – or the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny – is morally suspect and liable to damage their children’s trust, ruin their critical thinking skills and eventually break their hearts.
As Jake Wallis Simons put it in an article for CNN entitled 'Parents: Stop Lying to Your Kids About Santa': “Firstly, the man is a lie. Quite literally, a big, fat lie. And selling lies to your children isn’t a good thing, unless in exceptional circumstances. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it an abuse of trust, especially if you use it to frighten your kids into 'being good'.
Secondly, propagating the Santa myth is profoundly cynical. At the heart of the con is the tacit belief that the world is not magical enough on its own, that it has to be sexed up with a Santa.”
Strong claims, but does the science support them? Well, there’s conflicting evidence. Scottish psychologist Chris Boyle solicited Santa memories online in the Exeter Santa Survey and discovered that a full one-third of the 1200 respondents felt ‘upset’ upon discovering the truth about Santa, with 15% feeling betrayed by their parents and 10% angry. A third even said their trust in adults had been compromised.
That said, the Santa Survey isn’t exactly top-notch science – it’s possible that respondents with particularly strong feelings about Santa are overrepresented.
On the other hand, in 1991 the New York Times reported on a study in which 500 schoolchildren were interviewed about their experience of learning Santa wasn’t real. In this study, not a single child expressed unhappiness that their parents had lied to them. According to researcher Dr John Condry, the most common response to finding out the truth about Santa was that kids felt older and more mature. They now knew something that the younger kids didn’t.
Perhaps that's the ideal method to breaking the news – not by way of, “Sorry, kid, it’s all made up”, but instead asking your child to take on a conspiratorial, “Help Mummy keep the magic for your younger sister” attitude.
Of course, that’s assuming you have to break the news at all. Most children figure it out on their own – and some people argue that it’s a very good life lesson in weighing evidence. To figure it out, a child has to balance everything from the familiarity of the handwriting on the presents, to the relative trustworthiness of Mum and Dad vs the big kid next door, to the strangely inconsistent appearance of five different mall Santas. And that’s not even mentioning the physics of fitting all the world’s presents into one sleigh, or delivering all the world's presents in a single night!
Either way, belief in both Santa and the Tooth Fairy peaks at around age five; by the age of nine, fewer than 20% of children still believe Santa is real.
But what about Simons' second claim: that believing in Santa cynically minimises the magic of the real world? Well, there I absolutely disagree. If there’s no flying-reindeer magic in Santa, there’s magic in the fact that otherwise staunch, rational adults will go to great lengths to maintain the illusion for children.
After all, Santa isn’t just any old myth; he’s a myth with quasi-official legitimacy. He has postcodes in a number of different countries (H0H 0H0 in Canada), and thousands of people volunteer each year to write replies to children’s letters. His annual progress across the night sky has been tracked by NORAD since before NORAD even officially existed; and if that’s not enough, Google tracks him too, as do scores of jovial Santa-hat-wearing meteorologists on the local news. No US president or primary school teacher would dare to deny his existence, and ‘outing’ Santa to a believing child who isn’t your own is an unforgivable faux pas.
Of course, there are other concerns about Santa. Some people worry that the concept of a stranger entering their home will traumatise kids. Others object to him stealing the spotlight from the religious significance of Christmas, that he’s inextricably entwined with commercialism, and that he’s an old, white male. (Though last year Disney+ made Noelle featuring the first female Santa).
There’s even a movement to encourage wealthy parents to clearly label any lavish presents as being from Mum and Dad and the cheap ones from Santa, the idea being that poorer kids might think that Santa loves them less than the richer kids! (Although that still leaves the question of how much Santa loves Jewish kids and Jehovah’s Witness kids. Multiculturalism is complicated.)
Clearly, the concept of Santa is still changing, and the stories – the lies – we tell about him and other mythical beings reflect our changing culture.
In a strange twist, we’re starting to veer back to being moralistic after all! The Tooth Fairy is an old concept – Norse writings from 1200AD describe paying children for their teeth – but throughout the many cultures that have given children gifts and money in exchange for their pearly whites, the practice appears to have been purely positive. No punishments or threats, just a celebration of growing up and the universal language of bribery to get reluctant children to pull out dangling teeth. (Well, sometimes the teeth were used for ritual purposes.)
It’s only now that parents are starting to use the practice as a means of enforcing dental hygiene. No longer are teeth worth a flat fee. The Tooth Fairy (or, for several Romance-language cultures, the Tooth Mouse) often prefers pristine teeth and will pay more accordingly. Similarly holier-than-thou is the Candy Witch, who hails from the USA, and replaces children’s diabetes-inducing Halloween candy with a non-edible toy. (Why not just skip the middle-man and get people to hand out toys on Halloween, you ask? Because then Mum and Dad can’t eat the confiscated candy!)
I wonder what lies our children will tell theirs. Will there be a vengeful Recycling Unicorn, who lies in wait by the bins and gores children who don’t rinse out the baked bean cans? Will Santa’s elves overthrow him and form a socialist utopia? Perhaps the Easter Bunny will be outed as a cultural appropriation and fall out of favour in polite society. We’ll have to wait and see.
In the meantime, do me a favour and spread the myth of the Giant Death Pigeon. Two of my children are openly skeptical, however, if he got independent confirmation, the five-year-old might manage to believe for a few more years.
Sarah Tennant lives in Te Awamutu with her husband and four children. One of them believed up until age twelve that alpacas were genuinely called ‘noodly sheep’. Lying has consequences.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 52 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW