Claus and Effect

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image by Matt Luxich

If you’re like most parents, you will eventually have to face the truth about Santa Claus. Namely, that he doesn’t exist. Which leads to another revelation of truth: that you are a liar.

The struggle to explain this bitter fact (and the disappointment it seeds) leaves many parents asking themselves if it’s OK to tell untruths about Santa in the first place. Will that big, fat, red lie set a detrimental example for children as they move into young adulthood and develop their own moral framework?

“It’s a slippery question, whether these myths qualify as ‘lies’ in a morally important sense,” Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes in In Character (Spring 2007). But she concludes that the Santa myth might help kids “grow into adults with a more nuanced appreciation for the distinct concepts of faith, belief, and truth.”

As it turns out, it’s not just adults who grapple with the morality of lying. In a recently published study, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley examined teens’ views on honesty and gauged their inclination to lie in some circumstances.

Ninety-one percent of the teens in the study thought lying is “generally unacceptable.” Given a specific situation, however, many could justify lying–especially to their parents–through a process of moral reasoning, reports Nathanael Johnson in California (July/Aug. 2007), the UC Berkeley alumni magazine.

Researcher Elliot Turiel’s conclusion: “Teens see lying to parents as a way to even out an inequitable relationship, righting perceived injustices stemming from that power imbalance,” writes Johnson.

In both forms of lying, parents and their kids are enacting debates at least as old as the Greeks about the nature of lying. Is it OK to lie if no one gets hurt? Or to make someone happy? Or to keep the peace?

In the case of Santa, Rossi’s answer is an unqualified yes. The Santa myth “connects generations and preserves a wide-eyed sense of enchantment in a difficult world,” she argues. And in the end, “explaining to children that toys are made in factories by non-elves is not only age-inappropriate for young children, it’s just plain no fun.”

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