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Child Psychology Blogs

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, December 24, 2012

No, Virginia, There Isn't Any Santa Claus

Dear Virginia—

No, of course there isn’t any Santa Claus! I’m surprised at you, a big girl like you asking such a question. How could you believe a story like that?

Oh, you say your parents told you about Santa Claus? And they say it’s wrong to lie, so you don’t think they’re lying? Even though sometimes it’s okay for grown-ups to do things that are not all right for kids?

Well, Virginia, this time they are definitely telling a whopper. It’s pretty shocking to realize it. But I think I can explain why they’re doing it, and if you could understand this, you would forgive them.

The thing is, your parents love you and want to protect you--  not just from disappointment and skinned knees, but from understanding how horrible the world can really be. Your parents and most other grown-ups have an ability called empathy, and when they learn about awful things they can imagine what it would be like for them--  and especially, for you—to have to experience them. Your parents have heard about Auschwitz, My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and the events in Aurora and Newtown. When they think of those things they are sometimes tormented by pity, terror, and helplessness. They don’t want you to be tormented like that ever--  but they know that’s not possible, so at least they want you to feel happy about the world until you’re a lot older. They try to protect and defend you against terrible knowledge, and to do this they often do their best to fill in the gaps with stories of magical beauty, goodness, and happiness. They want to keep you as long as they can without the knowledge of evil that intrudes into every adult’s holiday, the fear of death that attends the birthday party, the ghost of loss that dances at every wedding. They summon Santa Claus to ward off those threats, and for some years he may do the job for their special children.

But you’re moving past that stage of life, Virginia. You want to know more of the things that adults know, even though you’re far from ready to know it all. (Indeed, who is?) What can you learn from the discovery that Santa Claus is not real?

Let’s start with learning to question anecdotes and testimonials, whether they’re on the Internet, on NPR, or from Mom and Dad. Trust, but verify, right? That’s the best policy if you really want to know what’s going on. On the other hand don’t forget that people, even you, don’t always really want to know. You can learn from the Santa Claus story that sometimes we like to work our own magic, tell ourselves lovely tales, and keep away the bad fairies that hover around our pillows all our lives. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we don’t tell ourselves stories that encourage us to hurt other people or take away things they need, stories that convince us that we’re more important than anybody else.

You can also learn from this discovery that human beings are often willing to do things that are wrong in order to protect those they care most about. Your parents say it’s wrong to lie, and they believe it, but they will do that and much worse if they think it’s good for you. I’m not saying not to trust them--  but from now on you may want to give some thought to everything anybody tells you, before you make it your own belief. If you can manage that, you will have learned a lot.

I’ll bet that your parents would forgive you a lie if they understood that you told it because you were scared. It may be hard for you to believe, but they sometimes lie about things because they’re scared too. Learn this, and you’ll know that the Santa Claus story was not just told to fool you.  It made you feel good for a while--- and that made your parents feel good too. Now that you’re older, you and your parents will need to find new ways to handle the fears that we all have.

Best love,

P.S. There’s no need to break this important news to your little brother. Besides, believers always get mad when you try to reason with them.