SANTA CLAUS: The Child's First Betrayal

by Phyllis L. Neumann, MS, MFT

SantaDo you remember the day you learned that there was no Santa Claus? Did you laugh, or did you feel confused — or even deceived? Perhaps you learned the truth about Santa from your friends. Did you wonder who to believe, your friends or your parents?

Santa Claus is a wonderful legend about generosity and kindness, and especially about giving. He comes into our hearts every year at Christmas time — and every year children are taught a lie. In fact, some parents are so invested in keeping the Santa Claus myth alive that they often hold on to it stubbornly, even after the child has reasoned that Santa can’t be on every street corner or in every store at the same time.

Most children grow up remembering the magic of the Santa Claus myth with few, if any, serious consequences; however, other children can harbor hurts that can last for years. When the child eventually learns the truth, which inevitably happens, he can become confused and distrustful. What parents may not realize is that the brunt of the joke is really at the child’s expense, which can set the tone for many years to come.

Developing trust in a child plays a significant role in his life. Children rely on their parents to tell them about the world so that they can develop a sense of themselves. They develop their sense of trust from infancy to about three years of age. What they learn about trust in those early years affects the way they handle trust throughout their lives. If parents tell the child a lie (even an innocuous one), the child may become confused about his own reality and question whom to believe in, his parents or himself. We play a dangerous game when we tamper with a child’s trust — and, once we do, that trust may never be completely restored.

Some of the more popular “innocuous” myths parents still tell children are: the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Stork (thank goodness that’s not popular any more), and the more important ones like masturbation and death. There are many, many others, depending on nationality and religion. These myths all seem harmless enough on the surface. However, if they are taught as factual, instead of as just myths, they can lead to unfortunate results — and the moment of truth is inevitable!

Not so long ago it was a widely accepted practice to tell children they were going to a slumber party when they were actually going to get their tonsils taken out. Many adults still carry with them the trauma of that betrayal, and relive that experience with terror and confusion. Think seriously the next time you are tempted to tell your child a cute or harmless myth as a truth. The effects can last a lifetime!

This Christmas season keep the spirit of Santa Claus alive because he represents the joy of giving — but maintain him as a myth and not as a reality. Don’t compromise your child’s trust in you for the sake of that myth. The price is too high.

Enjoy a Happy Holiday Season!

Published in the Half Moon Bay Review Magazine, December 2011