Should I Tell My Child the Truth About Christmas?

Because the world is far more connected than it used to be, people mingle and society is less homogenous than in the past. This is very apparent at Christmastime when people have a variety of ways of celebrating the same season - many are no longer religious and some people don't use the Father Christmas myth. Parenting has changed too and some question the wisdom of lying to our children about the origin of their gifts. So, should you tell your child the truth about Christmas?

On the one hand, as a therapist, I see the negative effects of lying to children in my clients and so, I recommend you avoid it as a parent. On the other hand, I have never seen a client or heard of anyone being traumatised by discovering the truth that Father Christmas is a fairytale. As I see it, you have three options...

1. Tell the truth from the start

Few people have clear moral values and even fewer act on them but, a growing number of parents have decided that building trust with their children is important and that lying about Father Christmas is a breach of that trust. They argue that there is no less pleasure in a Christmas where you know that those around you are the ones who bought you gifts - no mythical entity is required. I really respect this attitude as it demonstrates to the child the idea of human generosity rather than magical deliverance. It grounds financial expectations too - when grandma is funding the gift you're less likely to expect something extravagant. 

Opponents of the view say it removes the magic. I can see the appeal of watching a child faithfully lay-out a mince pie and a carrot on Christmas eve - it's so sweet and innocent. There is a time however, where the child becomes aware that there's a trick happening and they're required to play along. This is the kind of social conditioning that isn't helpful for good character development. 

2. Go along with tradition

It's pretty hard to resist the avalanche of Christmas customs that feel cheery and comforting. When children are very young they have no conception of the practicalities of life so, where their toys come from hardly matters at all. The idea of Father Christmas is as harmless as any of their bedtime stories. Their friends are enjoying the same expectations so they feel part of a whole world of excitement.

The caution I would make is that the moral judgement aspect of Father Christmas can be overemphasised - some parents make potential presents dependent on the goodness or badness of the child and set-up an ugly exchange of material things for moral performance. Of course children behave badly and require guidance but, the best motivation to use for children is explaining the negative effects of their poor choices, on themselves and others, rather than it effecting their material status. If you're going to 'do' Father Christmas, let your child know that he sees their inherent goodness and will be delivering gifts one way or another. Figure out to get good behaviour from children with more honest methods.

3. Come clean now

You may be feeling awkward about your deceptions and want to come clean with your kids. Should you sit them down and tell them you've been lying all along? This is probably the least best option. Framing Father Christmas as a lie you told is not seeing the whole context. Christmas is a cultural phenomenon, a tradition that everyone is performing, not a personal construction of your own. You've been involved because it connects your family to the whole community and there's no lasting harm if it's done with kindness rather than with moral manipulation. 

Your child will naturally let go of the Father Christmas fantasy without your help and you can replace it with something new, something that requires them to get involved as an active participant in making a positive family experience. This is empowering in the long run and builds better adults. (see the previous blog article on this topic)

What's more important than the specific lie of Father Christmas is the degree of honesty you have in your relationship with your child all year round. It also matters that you have healthy ways of getting good behaviour from your child rather than exchanges of goodness for stuff. I hope this gives you the motivation to think about your family values and how you'd like to act on them at whatever time of year it is.




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