The Dark Side of Santa

I have two primary tenets when it comes to parenting...


The first is: trust yourself. This is the best advice my mom ever gave me. She said, “No one will know your kids as well as you do — always trust yourself.” I love this, thanks Mom!



The second is: treat others the way you’d want to be treated. You’ve likely heard this before and assigned it to other adults, but in my opinion this should be an absolute with children. Have you ever seen a parent grab a phone, video game controller, or other device from their child’s hands and say something like, “I told you to start your homework 30 minutes ago!”?

If my husband came up to me, grabbed my phone away and said, “You said you’d start making dinner 30 minutes ago!” I would probably castrate him, and I’m a pretty easy-going person, yet parents wonder why they’re having behavioral problems with their kids.

What I hate about the modern concept of Santa stems from this second tenet. Seriously, who wants to be judged and labeled Naughty or Nice? I've heard people say, “You’d better stop that or Santa won’t bring you presents.”

Would you want a boss who said, “You had a terrible Q2; you’d better shape up next quarter if you want your end of year bonus.” Or, would you prefer the boss who said, “I’m sorry you had a terrible Q2. Let’s have lunch on Wednesday and brainstorm how to make next quarter better.” I know which I’d choose!

The other problem with Santa is the fact that he doesn’t actually exist. Most people value honesty in others, yet it’s okay to lie to children about something which is important to them at a fundamental level? “Mom, tell me the truth. Is Santa real?” My son, Dylan, was four years old and his eyes were wide and beyond serious as he stared into my soul. I took a deep breath, “No sweetheart, Santa’s not real. There was a real man named Saint Nicholas who was kind and gave gifts to people who needed them. Santa Claus is an imaginary person who is supposed to help us remember people like Saint Nicholas.”

Dylan's eyes became moist, he was quite disturbed by this news. It wasn’t the answer he’d expected, or wanted.

One year later he was a big brother. His new sister was 6-months old and we were setting up the Christmas tree; he grabbed my arm, pulled me to face him and his hands curled into tight fists, “Mom, you can’t lie to her. You have to let her know Santa Claus isn’t real.”

He wanted to save her from the traumatic reveal. I thought about it and could see how being told that Santa is real and can grant wishes is a bit like being told you’ve won the lottery and once you’re good enough, or once you want it badly enough, the money will finally be delivered; then one day someone says, “Nah, it was all a joke, there isn’t even a lottery (and everyone you lookup to and trust already knows this) but I love all the dreams you had for using the money.” Would you ever trust anyone again?

Needless to say, we never let our daughter think Santa Claus was real. And yes, just in case you’re wondering, taking my kids to the playground in November and December was a gamble. I did my best to explain why they couldn’t tell other kids the truth, and for the most part they held their tongues, but they couldn't wrap their minds around why parents would want to keep up the Santa deception. As a parent, concerned with juggling the endless demands of adult life, I think it’s easy to overlook the rich inner world of children. It’s easy to see them as unruly vagrants who need to be disciplined and trained to stay in line.

My experience is that children have tons of innate wisdom about what’s right and wrong. They also have a strong desire to do well and be accepted… just like adults. With a little gentle guidance, consistent support, and attentive listening they'll choose the right path... just like adults. And if they don’t, it’s only because of an obstacle, real or imagined, that they’re having trouble dealing with alone… just like adults. The more you realize this, the easier it is to build rapport, connect, and create an understanding with the children and young adults in your life: rich, insightful conversation takes the place of contrived manipulation.

As for Santa, well, at our house we decided to honor the real deal. We read the poem of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and children, two things very dear to our hearts, and celebrate the gift of a caring, generous spirit — something we can all get behind.