Wednesday, April 24, 2024


“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.”

— William Wilberforce


Awakening to the Culture of Cognitive Dissonance

One of my critical parenting moments happened on an August evening years ago as I was putting my five year-old daughter to sleep.  We were lying in bed together under the cool air from the ceiling fan—me silently begging her to relinquish herself to sleep and her holding on to the day and wanting to process her deepest thoughts in this precious, quiet time in the dark—when she asked, “Mommy, is Santa Claus for real?”

Now, I’m a psychotherapist accustomed to dealing with all sorts of unexpected stories, and I was well prepared for any number of parenting dilemmas, but I was completely taken by surprise on this one. Bullies, relational drama, irrational fears, sex… I was quite ready for those. But Santa?

Santa is not a big player in our family’s holiday celebrations, but my heart was actually racing because I realized that her innocent question would be a profound test of my integrity as a parent, and because I was caught off guard I had no idea how to respond.

At first I tried to delay.  “That’s a really great question, but it’s time to go to sleep.  We can talk about it tomorrow.” Nope, she wasn’t having it. “So what made you think of this now?”  I asked, hoping there was something behind her question that would be easier to address.  No reason, she was just thinking about it and she didn’t understand it and wanted answers. Her need for an answer increased in urgency the more I tried to put her off.

I had two options. If I affirmed the Santa story she could participate innocently in a sweet childhood ritual of delight and enjoyment. She would be consonant with her cultural peers and there wouldn’t be one more thing I’d have to explain to the in-laws. As I imagined telling her that yes, indeed, a big man in a red velvet suit really did land his deer on our roof, squeeze down our chimney, come into our house, leave presents for us, and then climb back up the chimney, I also imagined her as a teenager or young adult, looking to me for credible information or guidance and evaluating my track record of honesty and reliability. Would she remember this day?

On the other hand, if I told her that Santa was in fact a myth, I would preserve my credibility and nurture her nascent nose for nonsense. By telling her the truth, I would respect her intellect, support her ability to discern reality from fantasy and delusion, and help her develop a lifelong trust in her intellectual and cognitive capacity. My heartbeats calmed as the path became clear.

“Look, Santa is a game adults play with kids, using an imaginary character. So he’s a real character but he’s not a real person,” I explained to her. We went back and forth a bit to clarify, and also had a discussion about whether she wanted to participate in this game now that she knew. Satisfied with my answers and nourished by the discussion she fell asleep, and as I lay next to her I knew for certain she would never play the game.

I tell this story to show how from early on we have so many opportunities to build integrity, and how innocuous the pull to shush and lie and play games with our kids that teach them to accept absurdities and never to question things that don’t make sense can feel. First it’s Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Disney princesses who get whisked away to a life of bliss with men they don’t even know, and “I’m the parent, do as I say.” Then it’s “If it’s legal it must be fine,” “Experts have all the answers”, “Doctors know what’s best,” “It’s okay for me to use corporal punishment but it’s not okay for you to hit your sister,” “Killing is bad but the death penalty is okay” and “If it’s approved by the FDA it must be safe.”

Unless we are careful, our children won’t even recognize the cognitive dissonances, or wonder who is the authority behind “they”… as in “they say that [pick your poison here—fluoridated water, vaccines, irradiated or genetically modified foods, mercury fillings, x-rays for pregnant women, thalidomide, DES, glyphosate, DDT, deet]—are safe”. We have to teach them to reflexively ask who that authoritative “they” is and on what basis they draw their conclusions.

If we allow our children to become comfortable and numb to cognitive dissonance, how will they ever develop the strength and skills to question authority and the status quo, to think for themselves, or to follow their gut instinct when something isn’t right?  They have so many decisions to make in their lives—what products to use, who to be intimate with, what foods to eat, which people to associate with, what causes to join, which leaders to follow, what medical procedures to submit to, what pharmaceutical products to put in their body, who to trust with their money, how they’ll approach wellness and illness, and which religious beliefs and political philosophies ring true.

We are responsible for showing them how not to follow the crowd until they have determined for themselves after careful evaluation that they want to go where the crowd is going.

Yes, sleeping child, I love that you ask those honest, innocent questions. Never stop asking them or pursuing answers, because that’s what will keep you, and the people you love, safe. Make friends with cognitive dissonance so when you meet it you will recognize it and see it for what it is. Trust yourself. Listen to your gut. Pay attention when something doesn’t seem right. If you’re confused, keep asking questions until you understand, even if it makes you feel silly or unintelligent, or makes other people uncomfortable, angry or annoyed. It’s your life—ask away and don’t be dissuaded. Take all the time you need until you are completely satisfied.

You are sleeping now, my child, but never stop questioning and you will live your life in a wonderful state of awakenedness. Sweet dreams…

30 Responses

  1. I think adults take this too seriously. I grew up in a family that didn’t really use Santa, or a lot of other holiday “themes” I’ll call them. To be honest, It makes me sad now that I look back on it. I am a well educated adult (the only one out of seven children), and very aware of all that is around us in the world that is wrong and questionable. My not being allowed a fun childhood ritual didn’t change that for me, nor my siblings. I was kind of this weirdo in my neighborhood because we didn’t participate in holidays in the way other people did. We were so ostracized that people wouldn’t even come to our house for trick or treating. While there are plenty of things my kids don’t do with their peers (get vaccinated, eat enormous amounts of junk foods, etc), from personal experience I have found this overly serious approach to holidays more damaging than not. It makes me angry to be honest. My siblings are all social misfits, and things like this are largely to blame. Allowing your child some innocent childhood fun is not going to ruin your credibility in the future, it is going to give them some semblance of normalcy as they grow and realize they are already different because you are conscientious about their health in ways their peer’s parents are not.

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I used to be you. When my daughter was an infant, I remember reading about a mom who said she wouldn’t lie to her child; therefore, they wouldn’t be playing the Santa “game”. At that time, I thought she was mean to “deprive” her child of the wonderment of Santa. I have since adjusted my thinking on this. My daughter at age 12 or so told me the very idea of a man coming into the house at night had scared her as a child. It made no difference to her that he was supposedly bringing a gift. Not only that, she told me that she was mad at me for lying to her. For that and other reasons, if I had it to do all over, I would explain Santa just as the author of this article did.

  2. Well said.

    I want my child to be able to navigate the world after childhood as well. Letting her in on these adult “games” is a way to let her know that she can be trusted with information.

    How do you explain the rest? How will she react when I let her know about the doctors are standing in line with needles ready to disable or kill her? Or that the little box of do-dad snacks with the cute cartoon figure can make her sick. I have to remind myself: take it one day at a time.

    I appreciate your article which opened up this discussion.

  3. Or you could have said, Saint Nicholas was a man who lived a long time ago and who gave gifts to children because he wanted them make them happy. Later in her life, you could have also said that many people aren’t truthful either by commission or omission because to them, truth is relative and is trumped by selfish interests and cowardice.

    1. My son saw the true story of St. Nicholas on an episode of the Frugal Gourmet when he was about 5. He went to a playdate and told his friend that Santa was dead. His friend’s mom was not pleased. We didn’t really do the Santa thing. We talked about Santa Spirit rather than a fat man coming down the chimney.

  4. Love your take on how to reply to the “Is there a Santa” question. I’ve processed through the same thinking and agree with your wise choice. Lost respect at “Killing is bad but the death penalty is okay”, though. You’re entitled to your opinion that the death penalty is bad, but your argument is baseless. Obama, Bush and many other presidents have condoned killing, even God Himself (and many of them don’t agree with the death penalty). There is a season to kill according to them (war against those who will not abide by certain necessary rules like not being murderous enemies for instance). The words murder and killing are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Murder is wrong. Killing is unfortunately necessary at times. If the only option to save your child from an intruder was to kill or be killed, would that then be wrong that you killed the intruder? You do what you can to preserve life, but at times, there’s no choice. Killing to protect is not murder and murder is what is against the law and wrong. What your statement should be is, “Murder is bad, but the death penalty is ok” (because it sounds like you believe that the death penalty is murder considering you clearly are against it).

    1. JenP: I thought this was a good article. I don’t agree with you in regard to the death penalty. I believe that killing is wrong except in self-defense or a “just war.” (The U.S. has been involved in unjust wars.) Other than self-defense or a just war, in my opinion, only God has the right to take a life. There have been cases where a person condemned to death has been found to be innocent, though DNA testing or other means. A person who is a murderer and a danger to society should be given life without parole. Especially because I believe in life after death and heaven and hell, I believe that even a murderer should have an opportunity (and time) to repent before death. There have been murderers who repented and reformed themselves after being in prison.

      1. The only “just war” that the USA has ever fought was 1776. Read “None Dare Call it Conspiracy”. Most everyone has been duped into believing that the US wages any just wars.

      2. Hi Marie, I never said I believed in the death penalty. I basically said what you said… that killing is appropriate for the sake of self-defense and some wars that are necessary to keep peace and I don’t think every war the US has fought has to do with peace (my paraphrase).

        My point was, in the article she probably should has said “Murder is bad but the death penalty is okay” because not all “killing” is bad. I certainly hope I would never have to defend myself or condone killing, but that’s beside the point. The point is, if the author doesn’t believe that killing is ok even in the case of self-defense, she should have said “murder”. If she does believe killing is ok in the case of self-defense, then her point that you can’t say a child “killing is bad”, but should have said “murder is bad, but the death penalty isn’t. Then we can look at whether the death penalty is murder or not, because we’ve determined that “killing” for the right reason, isn’t bad. I simply am tired of people using “killing” and “murder” interchangeably. They are not interchangeable.

  5. Thank you for a thoughtful article.
    The Bible teaches us to “tell the truth in a loving way”…not condemning those who play the “game” of Santa, but, giving them a choice to play pretend or not…
    No parent has perfect integrity, however, but, I’m glad you’re encouraging parents to be honest and kind.

  6. This is a really good article. I don’t think parents should ever tell their children anything that is not true–but what they tell their children should be tailored to the child’s level of understanding and maturity. A child can enjoy Christmas without believing that Santa Claus is real.

    Recently, I have read about the pagan origins of Halloween, and not only that, but I have learned that Halloween is a big holiday, or holy day, among those who practice witchcraft or satanism. For this reason, I think we should stop teaching our children that Halloween is only about fun and games and celebrating. Some children are exposed too much to evil in the world, and other children are so protected that they are unaware that there is evil or that there are any evil people in the world. We need to protect our children but at the same time be realistic with them.

    1. I would have had a less fun childhood if my parents would have told us there was no Santa. Kids aren’t allowed to be kids anymore. It’s a shame…

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  7. If you do not know about the dangers of fluoride please watch Russell Blaylock M.D. talk on the topic, find on u tube.

  8. I think that the comment from another poster about not being told about santa caused her so much problems is crazy. Because from what you said there was a lot about your holiday life that was different not just the santa part. Kids love their birthdays more than any holiday and yet we don’t make up a birthday fairy in order to make if fun for them. If your kids need a lie to have a good holiday then it is your fault for not making the holiday amazing for them. My kids do not believe in any of those things and love every holiday. They save their teeth and are proud of it. They don’t need fairies because I work hard to make their childhood amazing for them and the best part is no one else gets the credit. When they see everything I do for their holidays they always thank me and I feel they see my work as my love for them on display every holiday with decoration and every gift they know was picked for them by me not a magical unknown being who judges if they are worth a gift.

    1. My comment was that I think parents take the idea of letting their children believe in Santa, feeling that they are lying to them and that they will never trust them as adults, is just taking it too seriously. Because there are many, many more examples of well rounded adults who are just fine even thought they believed in Santa. You aren’t damaging a child by allowing them holiday fun by believing in Santa.

  9. To the author of this piece: if you were truly creative, you cold have said that yes, Santa is real, and not let on that the parents are the “Santa” until the kid was older. That way, you aren’t really lying and not go into the psychobabble about ‘cognitive dissonance’. It’s sad that kids aren’t allowed to be kids anymore…we’re supposed to turn them into little adults by age 5, apparently.

    My parents told us there was a Santa Claus, and until we discovered the presents hidden under the bed, we believed he was real. At that time I was sort of questioning the tooth fairy because I had a tooth out, didn’t tell my parents and it was there the next day. Soooo…I was allowed to find out the truth myself. Did it psychologically damage me? No. Not any worse than other things that happen as we grow up like learning to become an individual and finding out reality for our own selves.

    Was I angry that my parents kept the fib going about Santa? No. I appreciated that my parents let us be kids and believe in things that aren’t true. I appreciated the feeling that comes with Christmas, that there is magic in the world.

    This sort of thing takes the enjoyment out of being a kid. I have a degree in Psychology, and I still believe that kids should be allowed to be kids. The adult world is cruel, lonely and tough enough without having to lay everything on the table for kids to deal with.

    The innocence of childhood is so fleeting. Why make it even shorter?

    1. This is exactly what I was writing about. It isn’t bad for kids to have the experience of believing in Santa. It isn’t damaging, they don’t feel betrayed when they become adults because their parents lied to them. We make it far too serious of a matter. Thank you for speaking sense.

  10. Thank you for writing this fantastic article! My wife and I have 5 children (4 boys, and our youngest is finally a girl), and we’ve always told them from the beginning that Santa Claus isn’t a real person, though he is loosely based on a real historical figure. We’re also careful to explain that while Santa is just a “game” of sorts, they need to be careful to not spoil that game for others who may not know it’s all just a game yet. The result has been great! We have a multigenerational tradition of each family member getting one super special present in addition to all the others, that we call our “Santa Gift”. We gradually put all the presents under the tree as we get them wrapped, so it’s no secret that they are all really from all of us. But the Santa Gift is just a way to continue playing the imaginary “game”, while giving the special gift a special distinction at the same time.

    And good for you for not backing away from such a question, either! Looking back to my childhood years, I can’t count how many times my questions were met with “SHHH! Don’t worry about that right now!” from my parents and my siblings. That annoyed me so much that as I grew up, I was hungry for answers to everything from simple questions like “How is college different from high school?” to not-so-simple questions like “What really happens to us after we die?” So sometimes ultra-tight restrictions can backfire and make the child even more desperate for answers, albeit after picking up a lot of mental and emotional baggage along the way. But if we encourage our children to seek and ask, just as you demonstrated here, they’ll be much more likely to dig for truth, and without any unnecessary mental and emotional trauma. 🙂

  11. Unlike the commenter above me, I am NOT a degreed medical expert, but I am in total disagreement with regard to ‘cognitive dissonance’ being just more psychobabble. WOW what happened to all you were apparently given during your studies?

    Since I feel one’s capacity for balance, health, ability to fully function creatively and interactively with our peers and loved ones, is primarily based on a fully functioning mind. This doesn’t often come about accidentally, nor from an over-orchestrated rearing agenda; but from FREEDOM to be, and to inquire. A loving, generous, well-balanced familial nest is a huge plus — but not the norm. Where truth dwells, clarity grows – or has a better chance to.

    Cognitive dissonance is the body’s own tool to teach, help and lead us. To deny its validity or power is pure folly. Living should teach us to always trust our gut, so the sooner we can figure that out and do the work (reaching for right feeling answers), the more we CAN experience the harmony, balance and even joy.

    I loved the agony and full personal wrangling this therapist went thru over the importance he knew it to be in his daughters health and understanding and growth.

  12. I was impressed and inspired with how deftly you (Barbara) were able to illustrate a deep and highly relevant topic: the ways we are persuaded to act contrary to what is true. And I think that’s where you are trying to lead us: not to get tied up in reacting to a particular example in what you wrote (all of which are cogent instances of this dynamic), but to recognize the importance of living the truth we find.

    Author and professor emeritus Harry Frankfurt explored this as the central idea in a number of short books, one of which was aptly entitled “On Bullshit.” He gets a bit heady about it, but you and Harry are both driving at the same point: if we know something to be true, but don’t live that truth, we ring like a cracked bell. In our consumer culture, we are led around by our desire for creature comforts. The mass media, including advertising, hypnotizes us and invites us to live for the desire of the moment and to avoid discomfort at the expense of long-term quality of life and our wholeness as individuals. We are constantly entreated to ignore truth and live a life of contradictions.

    If we can hit the reset button on our “BS Detectors,” and get them functioning again, think for ourselves, and then bit by bit realign the way we live with what we know as true (which will evolve), we can avoid driving into the potholes and roadside ditches of life. If not, we may end up as part of a crowd of lemmings running pell mell over the sea cliff.

    I found the most important part of the you wrote to be this: “If we allow our children to become comfortable and numb to cognitive dissonance, how will they ever develop the strength and skills to question authority and the status quo, to think for themselves, or to follow their gut instinct when something isn’t right?”

    Write on, sister.

  13. While I agree with your overall goal, I think you missed some points.

    Cognitive dissonance is the hallmark of a thinking mind, it’s not something to be avoided. In an ideal world, people would be aware that there may be two ‘right’ answers – or more – and embrace that knowledge. This would lead to questioning the correctness of a ‘single right answer’. Which, from your writing, is the goal you desire, as do I.

    Fifty years later I remember clearly the shock I felt when I was told that you could in fact subtract a larger number from a smaller number – something that I had been taught the year before was absolutely impossible. I also remember distinctly the day I stepped off a plane into a life in Thailand at the age of 9, when I learned that all of the facts in my world were dependent on a particular point of view, and they may well be completely wrong if seen from a different context. These were epiphanic moments in my life that taught me to question what I thought I knew.

    I think you did your daughter a disservice by telling her there was a one right answer, that Santa was a game adults play with kids. This only reinforces the perception that someone, in this case you, can tell her what the truth is, and she need not analyze the question any further.

    From your response it seems you see the question as an either/or problem, where there’s only one correct answer. That is never true. The real challenge is to identify more possibilities. For example, all vaccines are not bad, nor are they all good. The truth is far more complicated.

    My daughter, now 8, popped the same question on me a few years ago, also at bedtime, and I was equally unprepared. I chose not to answer it directly, but to ask questions back in return, with just enough facts to support the conversation. In other words, the Socratic instruction method.

    She hasn’t brought it up since, but I’m pretty sure that she understood Santa was a fiction with some historical basis that was constructed around the concept of treating others nicely, and she decided to suspend disbelief just enough to enjoy the pageantry.

    To me, a perfect outcome.

  14. Beautiful. Thank you for writing this. As a parent of a 9-year old, this really resonates with me. And having not yet decided how I’m going to handle the “Is Santa real?” question once it inevitably comes, you have helped me make that decision. Thank you.

  15. Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to comment. The Santa discussion reminds me of the line from Bruce Lee’s movie, “Enter the Dragon”: “It’s like a finger pointing a way to the moon…..don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

    I was inspired to write this essay because as I listened to vaccine injury stories I heard a recurring theme that usually sounded something like this: “My gut said ‘no’ but my [husband, doctor, mother-in-law] said ‘yes’ so I went along,” “I wish I’d paid more attention to that voice inside my head,” “If only I’d asked more questions and stuck with my instinct,” or “I just knew something wasn’t right, but….”.

    Clear thinking, empowered and questioning adults don’t just happen– they are created. And since mothers are generally on the front line when it comes to caretaking, health decisions and interacting with medical professionals, it is especially important for girls to be raised in a way that attunes them to their inner voice and gives them the skills to advocate on behalf of those innate instincts. We can respond in many ways to cognitive dissonance—agree to live with it, resolve it, avoid it–but unless we recognize it for what it is we will never make thoughtful, intentional choices about our response.

    I am happy to say that the daughter in my illustration went on to have a carefree and wonder-filled childhood, loves holidays and fantasy fiction, and is now a fierce and thoughtful young adult who embraces complexity and still asks tough questions.

  16. Thank you for the thought-provoking article!

    Too many people get caught up in all the other things you said, but the bottom line remains: Are we raising sheeple? or people who know how to stand up against popular/public opinion when they know they are being lied to by the powers that be for the supposed greater good?

    I don’t want my children to be among the sheeple. I want them to stand strong.

    Public/popular opinion is a forceful thing, and the responses to your article have proven once again that each individual holds their beliefs dear. To question them can be to play with a rattlesnake. Things like vaccines are sacred and as much a religious belief as the foods we ought to eat and avoid, the characters we hail or choose not to on holidays, whether we avoid flouridated water or not, and if we suspect that the wars we are involved in should not be supported, to name a very few.

    Pick your poison. All of it will invite responses good and bad from anyone who reads it. Don’t let it discourage you from stating the truth. This is what I want my children to learn!

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