Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lies, jokes, and Santa Clause

I was thinking about something today on my way to Mt. Pleasant. It's an hour and a half drive, so it gives me lots of time to think. Truth is correspondence with reality. When what you say corresponds with reality, then you've said the truth. But what about when you say something that does not correspond with reality? What's that called?

Usually, we'd call that a lie. A lie is when we say something that isn't true. We can't say that without qualification, though. I was thinking today about different things we say that aren't true, but that aren't exactly lies either.

One example is when we're mistaken. If we believe something is true, and it isn't, then we're not exactly lying when we say what we believe. Telling a lie, then, must mean that we knowingly say something that isn't true.

Fiction is another example. The whole genre is based on telling stories that aren't true. But we don't consider that lying even though the story teller knows that what he's saying isn't true.

Jokes are another example. Of course a joke can be taken too far. I used to be really bad about carrying on jokes for a week at a time--having people believe something that isn't true. I used to be involved with a girl who didn't appreciate that sort of thing, and we had to come up with a rule to distinguish between a joke and a lie. We decided that if a joke goes on for more than five minutes without revealing that it had been a joke, then it's a lie. I've had similar agreements with other people who aren't into practical jokes.

The one that really got me to thinking today was Santa Clause. When parents tell their kids that Santa Clause comes down their chimney and leaves presents under the tree and eats their cookies, they are saying something that isn't true. They knowingly say something that isn't true, but it's not fiction, and it's not a joke. Is it a lie? What do you think? If it's not a lie, what would you call it?


At 9/29/2006 4:03 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

You might call that a white lie, a lie that seems harmless? Another example of this greyish area is when you are in grade 8 science class and you learn about the atom, and how it follows the Bohr model, and that's the only thing you know. But then you get into high school and you find out that you weren't taught the truth; they only taught you the Bohr model because it was simpler than learning Quantum Mechanics right away. Is that a lie too?

At 9/29/2006 11:55 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

Why couldn't we consider the concept of Santa falling under the idea of fiction?

At 9/30/2006 12:13 AM , Blogger daleliop said...

Well, in fiction both the reader and the author know what's written is not true. If an author writes something that purports to be non-fiction (like an autobiography) and later we find out he made things up, then he can get in big trouble (like on Oprah). In Sam's Santa Claus, the kids are told the story but don't know it's not true, at least not until later, so it's not fiction to them.

At 9/30/2006 8:29 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Aquinas divides lies into three categories, the useful, the humorous and the malicious. He regards all as sinful but only the malicious is classed as a mortal sin.
I read a book about lying by Sisela Bok which pointed out that white lies are usually in fact for the sake of the teller rather than the recipient. After all by definition it can't be done on an informed consent basis and when we shift our psychological perspective to the person being lied to, the set of circumstances under which we would think white lies are ok diminishes dramatically.
In terms of the model of the atom, if I were teaching the Bohr model, I would explicitly say so and this would not therefore be lying.

At 9/30/2006 7:32 PM , Blogger daleliop said...

Our teachers never told us.

Aquinas divides lies into three categories, the useful, the humorous and the malicious

Aren't all lies useful?

At 10/01/2006 6:30 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

Our teachers never told us.
In which case they were lying. They might want to make a case that this was a useful lie (mendacium officiosum).

Aren't all lies useful?
Clearly the implication is that the 'use' of the lie is a morally good use.
Interestingly, Augustine has a taxonomy that lists eight kinds of lie. I think you have shown the hazard of trying to approach this with a list. Either your list becomes ever longer or some contextual information is needed.

At 10/26/2006 3:33 PM , Blogger drRic said...

Is it safe to say that everyone knows that Santa Claus thing ain't true? Okay, let's take the tooth fairy tale for instance where parents tell their children to leave their tooth under the pillow and we all know the rest: I think one of the questions we should ask too is, do most children grow out of that Santa Claus phase proving the Santa Claus fiction,lie or joke to be harmless, or do most actually attach themselves to it proving it to be harmful? The Santa Claus chimney story can be taken as a lie, a joke and fiction,yes, but what if somebody actually dresses up(don't worry,I think it's very unlikely)as Santa Claus and actually does the feat? Well, that person would be considered a burglar trying to get in the house( I've seen and heard many episodes as this). So, do parents actually take seriously what they say to their children? So,again, why make the children believe something that isn't true in the first place? In hope they'll grow out of it? We can say it's harmless, but I agree stories such as these can be very harmful. Sometimes we wonder why children at a small age have imaginery friends. We fail to look at the psychological warfare they have to go through while growing up in instances such as these. We should also consider that children at certain small age cannot distinguish between a joke and reality. Telling and sharing these fiction stories will only teach a child how to lie and joke because in essence, if their parents can do it freely, what's wrong with them doing it. Then, the parent wonders why the child lies so much and the list goes on. No lie is harmless, I can guarantee it. The smallest lie can lead to the most harmful lies and see what happens when most children learn that the Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy epic is a hoax. I don't think parents mean to harm their children with this Santa Claus story, but they should really consider the consequences and the harm they cause their children when they approach a fictious story in a SERIOUS WAY.

At 11/18/2006 8:11 PM , Blogger Psiomniac said...


There is an empirical question as to whether the Santa story is harmful. I doubt if the experimental design would clear the ethics committee though. I tend to think that there are much much worse things at sea on the voyage from childhood to adulthood. I can see the benefit in a rite of passage that involves gradually becoming aware and complicit.

At 12/21/2006 2:19 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

psiomniac, I thought it was kind of funny that you refered to the Santa Clause myth as a "right of passage." You know how Buddhists say that "Life is suffering"? Well, my philosophy teacher at UT is a Buddhist, and I remember he used to tell us about how common it used to be to spank a baby when it was born, whereas people don't do that as much anymore. He thought there was more to it than just getting the baby to breathe. He thought of it as sort of a "right of passage." Spanking the baby right when it came out of the womb was a way of saying, "Welcome to the world." In other words, this is what it's like. Life is suffering. If the Santa Clause myth is a right of passage, I suppose you could say the same sort of thing. It shows children at a young age that people are basically dishonest, that you can't trust authority, that the picture "they" paint of reality is an illusion, and that you should be on your toes. To an extent, I think that's a good thing. Children are born naive. They're fun to play jokes on because they're so gullible. I don't know if this is really an appropriate way to get that message through, though.

Not being a Christian, I'm sure this isn't a concern of yours, but as a Christian, my concern is that people will lump Jesus right in with Santa Clause and jettison them both. I used to hear this argument from people who were against Santa Clause, and I thought it was silly. I was raised with Jesus and Santa Clause both, and I never got confused about it. But since then I have actually met people who made this connection and are atheists, at least in part, because of it. It's not a hard connection to make either. From a Christian child's perspective, Christmas has two main characters. It's about Jesus, and it's also about Santa Clause. Santa Clause is naturally more appealing to children than Jesus because he brings something more tangible. Santa brings toys and Jesus brings salvation--something too distant to concern a child quite as much as cool new toys. But anyway, if the child isn't already confused about what Christmas is really about--Santa or Jesus--it wouldn't be hard to lump them into the same group--Christmas myth.

I disapprove of the Santa myth, not only because of the falsehood that it is, but because of the falsehoods it entails. Giving and thankfulness for recieving, I think, are important things for children to know about. The Santa myth obscures where the gifts came from and who children should be thankful to. It discourages children from being thankful to their parents for some of the coolest stuff they get--the stuff they might be the most thankful for!

The Santa myth just seems pointless to me. It serves no other purpose than to be a fun story. Parents can just as easily give their children gifts, and the children will be just as happy to recieve them. The difference only difference is that now they can truly be thankful to their parents and then don't get a neat exciting story to go along with it. It doesn't seem worth it to me to perpetuate a falsehood (even if a joke) for years just for the sake of having this added touch to Christmas--an exciting story.

At 12/24/2006 12:45 PM , Blogger Cassi said...

Hey! I was doing research for my facebook group about the psychologically damaging effects of Santa Cluse and your blog came up as a hit. I think that telling xhildren about Santa during their developmental years and then having to tell them later that he isn't real could be upsetting for many children. Also, why is Santa necessary for this holiday at all? Jesus is the reson we are celebreating this holiday and I think that the focus needs to be directed toward the birth of our Savior and not toward some ficticious man in a red suit. People are to caught up in the commercialization of Christmas and the popularity of Santa Clause is a direct example of that. I am happy to have found someone else that thinks this way! I hope you have a great Christmas!

At 11/29/2007 9:17 AM , Blogger Ren said...

I think the damaging part of the Santa Clause myth is to the parental relationship. If the parents can lie to the child for years and years about that, why should the child trust them about other topics?

We use a bit of vagueness and let our children decide when they want to know the facts or not, but I don't believe in outright lying and perpetuating a myth that seems to be more about the parents than the child.

Children see magic in everything. They don't need a lie to capture the magic of holidays.

At 11/29/2007 7:13 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Ren, I agree with you completely.

At 11/13/2008 11:15 PM , Blogger Jenny said...

Thanks so much for raising this question. Just this evening my husband and I were discussing how we are going to present and explain Christmas and it's meaning to our 3 year old son. Our parenting policy thus far with our son has been to either be honest when answering any of his questions or to distract him from any question/answer that we feel he is too young to emotionally handle (the subject of death and it's finality being one.) With this being our technique so far it is very difficult for us to even entertain the idea of lying to our child for any reason; and in response to your questions, in my book, any kind of deception, malicious or not, is a lie. It's a black and white issue. I think truth should always prevail and this situation is no different. If a child is deceived about this issue several things can happen. You know that understanding that in order to keep up a lie that you have started you must lie more and more just to sustain that original lie? That situation is at play here also. Here is what we are telling our kids when we talk up the Santa stuff. "Santa Clause is a real person who flies around in the sky with an endless supply of money and toys who doesn't have to work for them in any way. If you are "good" you will get something and if you are "bad" you won't. First of all, we are placing labels on children for their actions, they are "good" if they do "good" things and "bad" if they don't. We are ALL bad no matter how hard we try not to be simply because we are born into an evil world. When we ask children to be "good" instead of "bad" and requiring several good "deeds" to deem them "good" we are creating an absolute impossibility for them. Let me explain what negative things I believe can come out of teaching our kids that Santa is real. We are labeling kids right off the bat and are showing them that material things are the result of good deeds. So the motivation for our kids to be kind to others and obey their parents is so that they can get a toy?? I would rather my kids want to do the right thing because they truly care about others and want to respect their parents. Secondly, what about the child of a poor family who gets little or no toys on Christmas? They are left to feel that they are "bad" children??? We are teaching our kids that getting is the most important thing when we reinforce Santa. Santa is an child's eyes is the equivalent of toys. We are reinforcing greed. We are also creating a lack of trust in our kids when we deceive them this way. Just because this lie feels harmless to us, makes it no less real and hurtful to a child when the truth is revealed. So, if my parents lied to me for years and years about Santa why should I believe anything else they have to say?? My parents say that monsters aren't real, but they lied to me about Santa. Maybe they are lying about monsters too?? The truth is the truth. I really didn't mean to go on and on this way, but I am very passionate about being honest with our kids and letting them learn the most out of every opportunity. I am glad that instead of feeling lied to my child will learn that giving is more important than getting. He will learn that he can trust us to tell him the truth... always. He will learn that the truth is not always what everyone else is doing. He will learn to appreciate everything that he is given and he will know the sacrifices that were made for him to have that gift; thus reinforcing our love for him. Most importantly, our son will know that Christmas is a time that we celebrate the most incredible thing that ever happened or will ever happen to this world. A Saviour was born to relieve us of our "badness" and take all of that "badness" on Himself. He knew how "bad" we all are and He knew that we could NEVER earn our way to God and "goodness" no matter how many good things we did or tried to do. So, He came and lived our lives, lived in our skin and took on our sin as His own and died FOR us so that when we believe in Him and this truth we DO become "good" and worthy of heaven one day. This is the ONLY way to that "goodness" that we all strive for. This is why I am so passionate about this issue. Santa Clause is a gross distraction of THE MOST INCREDIBLE THING that has ever happened or will ever happen on this earth......Jesus Christ. "You will know the TRUTH and the truth will set you free." John 8:32


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