Life

An Age-Old Question About Santa Is Tearing One Parenting Community Apart

Is peace on earth possible?

Santa places wrapped gifts under a Christmas tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by HASLOO/Getty Images Plus.

I love Christmas but have known for a long time that I probably wouldn’t be up for maintaining a fiction around the existence of Santa Claus for my own child. I’m no good at on-the-spot fibbing, I become extremely uncomfortable watching TV shows or reading books where the plot revolves around people perpetuating long-term lies, and also, I simply do not like playing. But I’ve always felt like a real Grinch about it! Who wouldn’t want to give their child all those classic twinkly, peppermint memories?

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Chazz Lewis is a parent coach, early-childhood educator, and an excellent presence on Instagram, where he makes videos about life with young kids. He recently restarted a conversation he’d had last year about the Santa story and its positive and negative effects in children’s lives—a conversation that made me feel far less alone. In his saved Story highlights, where he’s captured some comments sent his way, you can see how for many people who follow Lewis—people who are invested in the kinds of parenting and teaching that could be roughly described as “respectful,” or maybe “gentle”—Santa is not a neutral topic.

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“One of my friends believed in Santa until she was fifteen because her parents doubled down when she asked multiple times over the years and she trusted them … she was beyond betrayed and mad and embarrassed when they finally admitted the truth,” one follower wrote. “We didn’t grow up believing in Santa because my mom was extremely poor as a kid and had a very traumatic upbringing and told us she never understood why other kids got gifts from Santa and she tried to be so good and never got one … really freaking depressing,” another one added.

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I recently asked Lewis to talk about his experience mediating this discussion about a tradition that a lot of people in the United States see as a given—something parents of young children must perpetuate. We talked about whether he thinks Santa is on the way out for the parents who follow him, why it may not matter whether I try to play the game with my own child, and how parents could give kids better tools to discuss Santa belief with their friends.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: What do you think the current conventional wisdom around Santa is, among your followers?

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Chazz Lewis: Some people still felt really strongly about doing Santa exactly the way that they were raised. Some people didn’t want to stop doing Santa altogether but wanted to tweak it, maybe around the behavior modification parts of the tradition. And then there were some people who are just like: The entire idea of Santa, I’m against it, either because of my experience finding out he wasn’t real, or because of cultural reasons, and because of that, I feel like an outsider, like an other, this time of year. Some in the second group of people have felt additionally pressured, to pressure their children to lie to other children about something that they know isn’t true—because they’re Jewish, or just don’t celebrate the same way, or whatever.

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Of course, we have to be aware that when people are having these conversations, they’re not just having the conversation in 2021, with the state of everything, our knowledge and being adults. In these conversations, people are coming with their own baggage, from their childhoods.

I’ve been thinking about the question of framing Santa as a “lie” after reading a bunch of comments under your posts. I find it interesting, because the unique nature of Santa is that it’s something some adults do “for” kids—like, to create magic—but they’re also doing it for themselves, I would argue. And then there’s a broader culture that sort of takes it for granted, like of course we’ll “make” kids believe in Santa; there’s a whole apparatus around it, with Santa pictures at the mall, and so on.

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But I feel like for the people who say, No, it’s a lie, I won’t lie to my kid, the whole thing is triggering in some way; maybe they see that the adults are doing this for themselves, for nostalgia, not just for kids, and that’s why they use the word betrayal to refer to how they felt when they found out the moment of revelation. That’s my theory, but do you have thoughts on why people on the “no Santa” side find it so objectionable? And why others feel the need to defend it so strongly?

I think there are different reasons, for sure. Like you said, if you experience feeling betrayed when you’re a child, and that was a big moment for you, you think about that and think God, I don’t ever want to give my child that feeling. There are videos out there, like on TikTok, where they show people finding out the truth, and they look so betrayed and hurt.

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But some people on the pro-Santa side bring other baggage to the conversation, and they’re coming at it from, this is a huge part of their culture, it is tied to so many fond memories, like decorating, sparkling lights, presents, joy … and those emotions get tied to how we see Santa, and when someone’s like, Santa’s bad, and you’ve been really thinking that this is a positive thing that helps you bond with your family and have joy in your life—that can very much feel like an attack.

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When it comes to pronouncements about Santa, about which you are fairly evenhanded, it seems like there are a few aspects of the tradition that you are willing to advise should be done differently. I’m thinking about the behavior control parts, and the practice of giving the biggest gift “from Santa.”

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You could keep the cute tradition, the fun, local traditions and delete the toxic tactics that have been attached to it. On that, I think most people in my community would agree. Think about Elf on the Shelf. OK, maybe that can be a really fun thing to do, the kid is waking up and the elf is in a different place; that could be fun and joyful. When it starts to be not so great, and I would say potentially harmful, is when we start to use the elf as a way to threaten children into “good behavior,” which typically is just adult speak for Listen! And obey whatever it is I tell you. Compliance, obedience.

I do think there is consensus in my community about this, that this is not something we should do, because it’s not aligned with any of the things I and other professionals talk about in terms of not using threats, coercion, rewards, and punishments because they’re not the most effective way to change behavior for the long term. The reason not to hit your sister is not because Santa won’t get you a present; it’s not because the elf is watching. It’s because she’s going to feel hurt and she might not want to play with you anymore. We try to condition children so much using the argument If you’re not good, something bad is going to happen, but that doesn’t do much, because then they’re like OK, I can do this so long as I don’t get caught. This doesn’t actually do anything to teach the skills to solve problems, or meet the needs the child needs met.

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This “naughty or nice” thing is so deep in the culture. I was watching Elf with my kid the other day, and it was all over that movie.

We can go even deeper into the labeling of children, right? In that version of the story, in Santa’s eyes, you’re either “naughty” or “nice.” This doesn’t capture the complexity of humans, what they’re really like. You’re not either naughty or nice, you’re embarking on this journey of life, through the challenges, making mistakes, trying your best with the skills and brain development, the upbringing, the temperament you have. Labeling somebody naughty or nice does nothing to change their behavior, and is likely going to cause other problems that you don’t even recognize and that do more harm than good.

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Now, about this thing of labeling the big gifts as “from Santa.” The reason to avoid doing this, and just have small gifts from Santa, is that obviously not everyone’s actually going to be able to get that big gift. The narrative is Santa is bringing gifts to all the boys and girls. So the people who don’t have many resources notice: Like, OK, maybe he only brings the best gifts to this neighborhood, or to people who look like that. And that can be a really hard thing for a child to process. So if you’re going to do Santa, credit the small gifts to him, and the big gift from family. I can’t see how changing that will make the moment, the season, any less magical.

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This question is somewhat self-serving, but I noticed someone else talking about it in your Stories, so let’s do it. I have an almost-5-year-old, and I am in the no-Santa camp. But what’s weird is, she wants it! I find myself insistent on saying, “It’s not real, right?” And she’s like “I don’t care!” She’ll hear our front-yard wind chimes and say, “It’s Santa’s sleigh bells!” Her eyes are full of stars.

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So I find myself wondering about that side of it—how belief works differently, between parents and kids. The typical conversation about Santa happens assuming that the parents are going to “make” something happen for their kids, but at least in my house, it feels like she’s creating it; she’s driving the household stance on Santa. Or, maybe, it’s just that belief in something like Santa works differently for her and for us.

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I’m glad you brought this up! It’s important. Adults will ask me, If I tell my 3-year-old, won’t they be devastated? They won’t enjoy Christmas! But what most adults don’t realize is that children at that age are so deep into pretend play, and imaginary play, they are more just about the process of doing it, rather than thinking about it being really real or not. It doesn’t really matter!

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That’s kind of what you’re going to get, at 3, 4, maybe 5 or 6, depending on your child; up ’til age 6, 7, 8, which is usually when their logic and reasoning have kicked in enough for them to start to figure things out and care a little bit more about what’s real and not real. That’s just where they are in their development.

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Also, think about it. How many billions of marketing dollars are put into Santa, and everyone is creating this whole world of Santa, and then your one little adult opinion is going to come along and put a stop to this imaginary force that’s been built up in your 3-, 4-, 5-year-old? No, no!

That makes perfect sense, and also kind of explains the fact that in my own family, when I was younger, I don’t remember ever being told that Santa was real, but we really enjoyed going through the motions—like putting out the cookies at night for Santa to eat. We still did it for years—decades—even before there were grandchildren involved. It was just … something we did.

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I really do believe that traditions are great for families. Like you said: This is something we do. It’s a thing where you can expect to connect, once a year, with your family. Maybe it’s not a big thing, but the year you don’t do the cookies like that, you think, I miss that.

There was a rare moment of agreement on the Santa idea in your feed recently. You came up with a way to reframe it that made a lot of sense to me.

We all kind of agreed, which is a very rare thing to happen, that there can be a way to approach Santa where everyone can feel respected, and celebrate the way they want, and have their own joy around it. I was explaining it this way: Whether you’re a Santa believer, or a celebrator, or a non-Santa believer, a noncelebrator, we can all approach it the same way: as a belief that people have. If we approach it as a belief, you can say, to people who believe in Santa, “OK, that’s what you believe; how interesting! I believe something different.” Or, “You don’t believe Santa is real. I can respect that! We can still be friends.”

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The conversation has been framed so dramatically: like You’re either lying to your children, or they’re lying to one another! But a belief is just a belief that people have, and you don’t have to intervene. You can help your child to see that she could say, when she has one of those conversations, This is what I believe. You believe something different. You don’t believe Santa is real. OK, I respect that. We can still be friends.

It’s a great chance to talk to kids about what it means to have different beliefs, in a relatively low-stakes situation. A good chance to practice these skills and reinforce these ideas.

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