Natural Skeptics: Kids and the Santa Myth

5 Dec

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.  And for a lot of people—when it comes to young children—“wonder” is the key word.  Nothing captures the magic of childhood Christmases like memories of waking up in the morning to find that, somehow, while you were sleeping, Santa Claus arrived, ate the cookies and milk you left for him (giving Rudolph the carrots, of course), and filled the room with presents.

(If I wanted to be flippant, I’d say that there’s nothing more wonderful than an overweight man breaking and entering into one’s house through as innocuous a feature as a chimney, but in the spirit of the holidays, I won’t mention such a thing.)

Those memories are tinged with nostalgia for the world-weary adults (and in this case, ‘adult’ can mean eight-year-olds) whose ideals are eventually shattered by the knowledge that Santa Claus is Mom or Dad tiptoeing around downstairs after sprinkling on the sleep with warm milk and soporific poems about sugarplums (what the heck are those?) and mice not stirring in the house (I’d hope so).

But the subsequent disillusionment doesn’t seem to prevent ultimately looking back on those memories with fondness—the carefree days watching cartoons on Saturday mornings and believing in something magical.

And there’s a lot of good in the Santa myth—it’s about joy, justice (being rewarded for meritorious behavior), and good will.  He’s jolly; he enjoys American commerce and gastronomy; and his mode of transportation hardly leaves a carbon footprint.  How could there possibly be a downside?

For one thing, it’s a lie.  Even in the service of magic and childhood wonder, it’s dishonest, and sets a precedent—the lies have to grow.

Kids are natural skeptics: they drive parents crazy with the constant “why?”  I distinctly remember the dreadful time before I learned to read—jealous of my older sister’s lexicographic skills, I would scribble in a notebook and pretend it was my diary, but when I looked back on the pages, I couldn’t remember what my “sentences” were supposed to mean.  And sitting in the backseat of the car, I’d point out every billboard and ask what it meant until both she and my mother stopped answering.  Horrible frustration—I wanted to know.

Most kids are curious—about why the ocean is blue, whether colors looks the same to everyone, what billboards say, or anything they don’t understand.  The world’s a mysterious place when you’re little (shoot, it is when you’re big), and let’s face it, Santa Claus is a mysterious guy.

Eventually, kids become skeptical about his mysterious abilities and begin to ask completely commonsense questions: how does he visit every house in 24 hours? why don’t all reindeer fly? how can a morbidly obese man fit down our chimney? (That one was particularly relevant in my house, which didn’t have a chimney.)

But parents think back to the “magic” of their early days and respond with vague claims about the supernatural.  The process of coming to a reasonable, logical conclusion is forestalled, supposedly for the good of the child in his or her fragile formative years.

That’s just it.  They are formative years.

Deflecting answers or making up far-fetched explanations to fend off questions discourages this completely healthy, completely natural, and almost universal skepticism in children.

And truth be told, attachment to the man in the red suit seems to tilt pretty heavily to the adult side.  Adults don’t want to deny their children the sense of wonder they remember; kids don’t want to be denied answers.  Cross-purposes, friends.  There’s nothing more frustrating than deflection, even now (thank goodness for Wikipedia).

Skepticism is an important thing to learn early—it’s critical thinking, reasoning through problems, learning about how the world works, the scientific method.  And in a media-saturated culture, with politicians and newscasters and advertisers and writers throwing information at us from every direction, it’s more important than even to have a mechanism to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Skeptical thinking isn’t cynicism or disillusionment; and it certainly doesn’t have to mean a Burgermeister-Meisterburger ban on Christmas (or maybe that was Oliver Cromwell…).

Once again, I have to point to Carl Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World is a manifesto for critical thinking, and I agree with every reviewer who commented that it needs to be read by every high school student who can get a copy (buy it, share it, steal it… well, maybe not the last).  He writes:

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class.  Many of these children are natural-born scientists—although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism.  They’re curious, intellectually vigorous.  Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them.  They exhibit enormous enthusiasm.  I’m asked follow-up questions.  They’ve never heard of the notion of a “dumb question.”

And then we get to high school.  We memorize dates and facts, read Albert Camus, flirt with nihilism.  Don’t tell me it’s childhood trauma from that Christmas day the magic died.  It’s because we never learned critical thinking at all.  Just the opposite, in fact—as children, every time we tried, we were discouraged.  Questions are brushed off or patronized (“because the ocean reflects the sky, dear”; “because the reindeer are magic!”).  Memories of Santa Claus bring a lump to our collective throat?  Maybe because we think he holds a monopoly on magic.

There’s just as much excitement in learning how to read, or in finding a solution to a problem all by yourself (don’t kids incessantly insist on doing things on their own?)—maybe more.  In any case, that’s the kind of wonder that lasts.

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2 Responses to “Natural Skeptics: Kids and the Santa Myth”

  1. sparks123 December 8, 2009 at 11:42 pm #

    The myth of Santa Claus is harmless fun up to a point. Once a kid is sophisticated enough to start asking those sort of questions, it’s time to let them know the truth. A younger child will accept the story of Santa as a fun game and not feel like he or she was lied to. The older a kid gets, the more they’ll feel like they were deceived, largely because they were.

  2. thescattering December 9, 2009 at 12:50 am #

    I definitely agree with that! I think the disillusionment so many kids feel when they learn Santa isn’t real is due to the fact that the myth was forced on them to a certain extent (ironically, to preserve their “innocence”).

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