Researchers say lying to children about Santa may cause children to distrust their parents.
In an essay published in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers from the United Kingdom and Australia discuss how lying to children about Father Christmas might affect their moral beliefs.
Most children are told from a young age that lying is wrong and telling the truth is right, but the researchers - including psychologist Prof. Christopher Boyle of the University of Exeter in the U.K. - question how children can accept this moral teaching once they discover their parents have been lying to them for years about Santa.
"The morality of making children believe in such myths has to be questioned," says Prof. Boyle. "All children will eventually find out they've been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they've been told."
"Whether it's right to make children believe in Father Christmas is an interesting question," he adds, "and it's also interesting to ask whether lying in this way will affect children in ways that have not been considered."
Kids may question parents as 'guardians of wisdom and truth'
Those of you who believed in Santa as a child are likely to recall the moment when you found out the chubby, bearded man in the red suit was nothing more than a fabrication. Were you upset? Disappointed? Angry?
According to Boyle and co-author Dr. Kathy McKay - a mental health researcher at the University of New England in Australia - some children might question whether they are able to trust their parents upon discovering their Christmas beliefs are a lie.
The authors explain:
"Seeds are planted - Santa might not be real! But adults are not meant to lie! However, you are aware that they have, so as a child you also consider what else have they lied about. The quandaries of suddenly realizing that not all accepted parental truths are that.
If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth, which the children see them as up until that point."
Prof. Boyle and Dr. McKay admit that it is sometimes right to tell children "white lies" - for example, telling them that their recently deceased hamster has gone to "animal heaven" is kinder than providing them with the more realistic details.
Still, the authors argue that when it comes to childhood myths like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, parents might be perpetrating these lies more for their own benefit rather than their children's.
Is the Santa lie driven by parents' desire to re-enter childhood?
In the report, the researchers say that telling the Christmas lie might transport parents to a time when they believed in magic and fantasy.
They note that looking at today's pop culture landscape, it is clear that adults still hold "enchantment" close to their hearts, as demonstrated by the widespread adult interest in books, TV shows, and movies that are primarily targeted at children.
"There is a persistence of fandom in what are designed as children's stories, such as those of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Doctor Who, well into adulthood," the authors write. "Adults taking their children to a Star Wars convention as cover to dress up as Han Solo or Princess Leia is a fairly common occurrence."
"It seems that by returning to a fantasy world, there is a comfort in being able to briefly re-enter childhood," they add, "which was a magical experience for many. A time when imagination was accepted and encouraged but which becomes lost in the space and time of adulthood."
It could be argued that if parents' annual festive fib to their young children is driven by a need to relive those magical childhood memories, then the discovery that Santa is a lie is unlikely to be too distressing.
And, after all, who is to say Santa isn't real?