Saturday, December 8, 2012

What Effect Does Santa Have On Credulity?

Every year theists and atheists alike tell their children an impossible story about a fat man and his flock of reindeer.* I’ve often wondered whether this ruse has a net positive or negative affect on a child’s skepticism. I’ll briefly argue both sides in this post then outsource my opinion to the commenters because, frankly, I just can’t make up my mind.

Santa makes you more gullible.

The myth of Kris Kringle is a more compelling story in the imaginative eyes of a child than, say, Jesus. It’s a case of presents, snow and elves versus preaching, desert and crucifixion. No contest. In terms of believability, the two competing Christmas stories are on par. A man who hardly looks spry traveling to every home on earth within a 24 hour period is roughly equivalent to every human having a simultaneous personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Airborne caribou is about as likely as walking on water. Santa, like Christ, allegedly sees you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake. Simply put, Santa is crazy talk that kids love which prepares them to accept crazy talk that parents want to teach. It’s Indoctrination 101.

Santa makes you more skeptical.

After the well intentioned lies have run their course, all but the most mentally challenged youth eventually outgrown Santa. In most cases, their own questions expose the cracks in their parents’ story until, finally, mom and dad have no choice but the come clean. This isn’t Indoctrination 101, it’s Intro to Critical Thinking. The experience should teach kids the value of open inquiry and to never accept stories at face value--regardless of the authority of the source.

Before opening up to comments, my last thought is that the affect of Santa probably depends largely on the reveal. For me, discovering Santa wasn’t real was both disappointing and rewarding. The disappointment may be unavoidable. Learning the world has a little less magic is never good news for a kid. The reward came from figuring out the truth on my own. The knowledge that my conclusion had to be more correct then what I previously thought made me feel smart. If a sibling broke the news that Santa is bunk, I may not have gotten as much out of the ordeal.

*A group of reindeer is actually a herd, but once they’re in flight I like to think of them as a flock.


  1. I'm with you on the flock. :-)

    I'm not sure what side I would fall on between skeptical and gullible, but my guess is that Santa makes less of an impact than we might hope or fear. That opinion may come from the fact that I didn't feel tricked or lied to when I made an "educated" guess about Santa being fake. Instead, to me it was more akin to playing out a little fantasy role, like when we used to play "cops and robbers" as kids, only this was on a larger scale where parents were involved.

    Taking it as fantasy play, it doesn't seem at all like indoctrination, and it seems unlikely to provoke doubts in other areas of life. However, depending on how the parent plays out the story, and perhaps its discovery as well, I can see how either gullibility or skepticism could be fostered.

  2. I would tend to agree with TWF that the effect is probably actually pretty small. But if it has any effect at all, I would think it would be toward the skeptical side. It would seem to me that any gullibility that is built up during the time that kids believe would be shattered when they find out Santa isn't real.

    The idea of it making them gullible is that they are being conditioned to believe some nonsense, and therefore they would be likely to believe other nonsense later right? But since they eventually find out that they were believing something foolish, if they were implanted with the idea to believe false things, wouldn't it also implant the idea that those things might turn out to be false? I'm just not sure I see how the gullibility lesson would stick.

  3. Great question! I'm not completely sure it had either effect on me in a lasting sense, although I do remember wondering what it said about my parents that they would lie to me for their own entertainment.

  4. It would be beneficial for humanity if more people would extrapolate from their experience of incredible-belief-then-enlightened-disbelief in Santa to their religious beliefs. Sadly, they manage to excuse their religious beliefs from the similarity to their former belief in Santa. So to the point of your post in regards to Santa belief, it's is put into a separate category from the belief in gods and thus fails to become a valuable lesson in gullibility and skepticism.

  5. It was your comment that Santa was a "gateway drug" to faith that got me thinking about this. At first, I didn't think you were right, then I thought you might be, now I don't think so again. :-)

  6. The other day I was with my wife and children at a birthday party. A man there (Jon) asked my son (who is four), "Do you think Santa will bring me a pair of glasses just like yours? Those are cool glasses!" My son replied, "Um, no, I don't think so."
    "What? But I have been a good boy!" Jon pleaded
    "Yeah, but Santa isn't real."
    Since there were other children around, we all decided to talk about something else.

    The next day we were at a Christmas party, and we walked up to the table to check in. The first thing out of the lady's mouth, "Santa is having some trouble with his sleigh, so he won't be here for another 15 minutes."
    "Hmm," my son said, "Maybe Santa IS real!"

    So then Santa shows up, and hands presents out to all the kids. And now my son knows for a fact that Santa is real, don't try to argue with him about it.

    The moral of the story: Don't lie to your kids. Someone else will do it for you. If there is any skepticism to be gained, they will gain it, but you will not lose their trust and respect.

  7. Do something my education classes in college taught me is that if you want to teach a new idea, you have to describe it explicitly - it is not simply enough to have the child experience the idea in action and understand the underlying message. So, unless parents actually tell their children that they should be better critical thinkers in order not to be duped by myths again, they might not actually learn that lesson.

    My guess is that most parents aren't explicit in this way - they probably do what's necessary to get their child through the disappointment, but they probably don't point out the broader lesson that can be learned from it.

    So, I'm going with Indocrination 101!