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…