Friday, December 2, 2011

Santa, Self-Esteem, & The Spirit of Christmas

The classes I teach, and the one I observe at 8:00 a.m., are doing presentations this week over their research prospectus projects. For the most part, all of the students chose topics you would expect, like the legal drinking age, wildlife management, and teen self-image, but today, during my observation hour, one of Dr. M's students gave a presentation about Santa Claus, which I thought was not only fun, but was also quite seasonally appropriate. I thought it was so fun, in fact, that here I am writing about it myself... in the spirit of the season, of course!

The student took a few interesting stances: that telling your kids that Santa's a real guy, who brings presents, can be damaging to a child's self-esteem, and that kids should be taught about the spirit of Santa and not that he's a real person. While I didn't initially see the connection between Santa and self-esteem, as she spoke I came to understand what she meant. I also agree that kids would be much less damaged by learning about the history of Christmas, and the mythology of Santa Claus as St. Nicholas, rather than teaching kids that a fat guy in a suit will bring them toys if they're good, and not if they're not.

On the self-esteem point, the correlation seems to be that for many kids whose parents cannot afford to give them as much--or anything at all--whose parents can't afford to buy them netbooks, iPods, and cell phones the perception is that they weren't as good or worthy because Santa didn't bother to bring them something as nice--or something at all, in some cases. Not only can I see that point, but I think that as Christmas becomes more commercial, and consumerism makes it possible for kids to ask for things like game consoles and iPads, the idea of Santa is also damaging to parents. Parents who can afford a nice Christmas, but maybe not to fork out $500 per kid on the latest gadgets are crippled by the folktale, stuck between giving their kids something they can't really afford to buy and breaking their hearts by breaking it to them that Santa's a myth, rather than a reality.

To that point, I recently heard someone say that when their kid asked them for a iPod for Christmas, and they said no, the kid came back with, "Why not?! You don't have to buy it, Santa will bring it!!"  If anything, this made me more glad I don't have kids to buy for. Santa and the consumerism of Christmas is making kids bold and parents broke! And really, most people who agree (on some level) that presents aren't really supposed to be the point of Christmas. Whether you believe it's religion or just simply family togetherness, presents are secondary to the spirit of the season, or they should be, at least.

On the second point, that kids should be taught about the spirit of Christmas and St. Nicholas, rather than that he's a real guy, I've always agreed with this point. I still remember when I found out there was no Santa (and likewise no any other imaginary holiday thing) and I remember how upset I was. Why tell your kids a lie, purposefully and knowingly, only to later admit to said lie? To me, it seems almost malicious. It's a tradition and one people follow without really giving it a lot of thought, but to teach kids not to lie, and then lie to them, only to later retract the lie and tell them it was for their own good to have been lied to, well, it seems wrong. I cannot fathom why people do it, except that they believe that to not do it would be bucking the tide and robbing their child of childhood experiences. To teach them about the spirit of Christmas seems a better option, but requires more faith in the child's ability to comprehend notions like history and mythology, something most people are unwilling to do.

So now that you know what I think, tell me what you think!!  Do you think we should tell kids about Santa and let traditions stand?


  1. Good post! I don't really remember how I reacted when I realized there was no Santa, but I do remember one year I wanted a huge stuffed Nala (Lion King) and I wrote Santa a long letter telling him how good I was and how I would LOVE to have the toy. Well I never got it. I was so upset about not getting it that I tried to be good the next year, but that didn't last long. I was a total brat as a child :P

    As I don't have kids and never will I don't really know what I would do. But I do remember having a book about Santa, it wasn't the commercialized Santa it was a German story and I cherished that book as a child. And although I did believe in Santa I started to get a different view about what he represents (I need to find this book now! Time to raid the moms house!). I guess I would let the kid decide and go with it. I do miss writing the letter to Santa though, that was always fun :)

  2. Wait, are you suggesting that Santa isn't real? I'm going to need some more documentation to prove this, before I'll believe it.

    I'm kidding, I'm kidding, but I had to be the first to jump on to the obvious joke. I actually found out when I was pretty young, and my brother decided to surprise me with the truth the night before xmas, while we were talking about the things we hoped to get. Granted, it wasn't the best way to find out. He sort of just threw it out there and I pretended not to be upset.

    I guess I've always seen the whole "Santa Issue" as something of a coming of age measure, like a stage kids go through on their way to adulthood. I can certainly see how it could be rough on a kid, the confusing of thinking they're not a "good kid" because parents can't afford the latest and greatest gift. Of course, a parent could just tell their kids that elves aren't well trained at building electronics.

    To some degree, I like the idea of children using the "Santa discovery" as a means of developing the crucial critical thinking skills a child needs to grow. I like the idea that a child could develop those skills, ask the right questions and grow as independent thinkers. I like the idea, but it's not really how things work.

    For most kids, finding out about Santa happens as a shock, with someone telling them bluntly. Whether it's another kid using it to bully the child, a parent yelling it out of frustration or just an accident; it's the kind of thing that really doesn't benefit a child. It becomes less of a learning situation and just another bad experience. Either way though, finding out that something you believed in for years isn't real, is a confusing experience.

  3. I think the idea of making children believe that there is Santa is quite very disturbing since we are letting the kids think of things that doesn't exist. Instead of making something up, I think that sharing the true meaning of Christmas is the most important and that is giving something with out expecting anything in return. After all that what Santa is all about right?

  4. Kristyn, we agree on something! Actually, I think this is like the second or third thing we've agreed on this year, so we are on a ROLL. ;-)

    I never partook in the Santa myth with my kids, simply because I could never justify looking my own kids straight in the face and telling them a bold-faced lie. We still play along with the whole Santa-thing, and even label their big gift "From Santa," but the kids know that this is all just for fun. I will say that I have received criticism over this. When other parents discover that my kids don't believe in Santa, they react as if I have cold-heartedly ripped their childhoods away from them.