Warning, this article contains sensitive details about Father Christmas. Kids, look away.
Lethabo Makhubu, 5, is standing in front of his mother’s computer searching for a familiar face on the internet. He clicks through the pictures with an excited look on his face. A picture of a jolly, chubby man in a red suit pops up. He screams: “Santa!”
“Santa is going to bring me roller skates and a new phone for Christmas. But he only brings presents for kids that have been good,” Makhubu says.
Lethabo, like many children his age, believes that Santa Claus is real and this is what makes the festive season fun and exciting.
But an essay published in the December issue of The Lancet Psychiatry journal argues that lying to children about Santa may be doing more harm than good. In the comment piece, two psychologists posit that what they call a “collective lie on a global scale” about the existence of the mythical North Pole dweller could cause children to start asking uncomfortable questions about just how trustworthy their parents might be.
The authors write: “If they [parents] are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?”
But eventually, the lie has to come to an end, which is where the problem lies. According to a 2013 study published in the Child Development journal, children – especially younger ones – believe that adults only talk about real things. To survive, children must believe what their parents tell them is the truth and once the idea that their parents can lie to them exists, this may change.
“Perhaps the biggest moral breach of the Christmas lie comes with the fact that once, the truth comes out,” write psychologists Christopher Boyle and Kathy McKay from the UK’s University of Exeter and Australia’s University of New England, respectively.
The result could leave kids disappointed in parents who may have ulterior motives for keeping the myth alive, says the essay.
Because Santa only leaves gifts for children who have been nice, many parents continue this myth as a method of discipline.
Lethabo’s mother, Thuli Makhubu, admits that the promise of presents from Santa makes for a better-behaved child. But maintaining fantasies like Father Christmas – or the Tooth Fairy – can be costly.
“Lethabo’s tooth was loose, and we removed it using a thread. We put it in a jar, and then later replaced the tooth with R50,” Makhubu remembers.
But when Lethabo realised that the Tooth Fairy leaves money in exchange for a tooth, he tried to remove his other teeth which were not loose. “His gums were even bleeding and he told me he wants all his teeth removed so the Tooth Fairy can give him more money,” his mother says.
Makhubu dreads the day she will have to tell her son that Santa is not real. “I will have to because if I don’t, someone else will. I fear that it will be his friends and they will tease him because he is too old to believe,” she says.
So why do myths like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus persist?
Because people are more likely to conform to society even when it does not make sense, argue Boyle and McKay.
And also because even the biggest kids may want to believe. The pair of psychologists write: “Adults who propagate the Santa Claus myth are able to go back to a time when they believed that magic was indeed possible.”