Should teachers engage in the Santa conspiracy?

Should teachers collude in the deception that Father Christmas exists? Educational philosopher Jeff Standley tackles this age-old ethical poser and finds some light at the end of the chimney
11th December 2020, 12:00am
Should Teachers Engage In The Santa Conspiracy?
Jeff Standley


Should teachers engage in the Santa conspiracy?

Christmastime is here again. Many children will be sharing their Christmas wishes with Santa Claus, and readying their stockings in joyful anticipation of his visit to their homes. Many early years classrooms will also be getting in on the act, as they too talk about visits from Santa, along with singing songs and putting on activities about him.

This is generally considered to be innocent fun, but some feel that Santa should have no place in the classroom. Why?

SPOILER ALERT: Santa does not really exist. Children are convinced of his existence by a grand deception, perpetuated through multiple layers of society. Through their encounters with depictions of him in films and television shows, visits to his grotto in shopping centres, and exposure to half-eaten mince pies and carrots found on Christmas morning, children are confronted by a range of fabricated evidence and lies.

But should teachers actively collude with this deception? Surely they should strive to be honest and prioritise developing children's knowledge base and critical-thinking abilities, rather than fostering false beliefs and credulity through lies and deception?

Some feel that educators should simply be straight with children: answer questions about Santa truthfully and identify errors in beliefs whenever they become apparent. This ensures that we do not breach professional expectations of honesty. Children's trust in us is maintained and knowledge in the form of true belief is cultivated.

However, although noble in intent, this approach has obvious drawbacks. It will inevitably invoke the wrath of parents who do not yet want the truth revealed and could cause emotional harm to children who discover the truth before they are ready. Revealing the truth too soon might even reduce opportunities to promote children's intellectual development.

Amnesty may not be the best policy in this instance, but surely we want to avoid dishonesty and deception. So why not remain neutral, and avoid all activities and conversations about Santa in the classroom?

Santa Claus dominates many young children's lives for several weeks each year, causing great excitement. Not only is it unrealistic to think that this excitement will not spill over into the classroom in some fashion, but denying the myth in practice also denies a significant part of children's lives. If we want to engage children in learning and build positive relationships with them, ideally we must engage with what most powerfully captures their imagination. Trying too hard to eradicate Santa's presence from the classroom might raise suspicion and could lead children to question their belief in him.

So should teachers just bite the bullet and actively collude in the Santa deception? Inevitably, this approach also poses problems. First, by consistently deceiving children about Santa, educators engage in morally questionable behaviour, which risks damaging children's trust in them and their status as authoritative sources of knowledge.

Second, if we actively present Santa as a real being - by hosting visits from him, claiming to have directly conversed with him or by just outright asserting that he exists - we might create entirely new beliefs in children from families who do not endorse Santa Claus, many of whom may be from religious minority groups. Being the originator of a deception seems a greater offence than just colluding with a pre-existing one.

Thankfully, I think that there is a way out of this conundrum. Although colluding in the Santa deception risks entangling us in some complex moral issues, it might also produce significant developmental benefits for children. Disillusionment with Santa is something of a rite of passage, indicating a child's achievement of a more mature cognitive status and understanding of the world. We may think of a child as walking a path from gullibility, wishful thinking and naivety about the workings of the world to a position of greater scepticism, rationality and scientific understanding - a necessary progression towards becoming an effectively functioning adult.

Without this development, one would be left vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by the many charlatans in the world who seek to prey on the naïve and exploit their gullibility.

Santa, you are fake news

Not only does the path to disenchantment about Santa track the maturing of children's critical faculties, but it can also feed this growth. The reasoning, questioning and weighing up of evidence involved in coming to realise the truth offers unique opportunities for children to sharpen their conceptual and critical-thinking tools.

This is revealed through reports of children discovering the truth through critical analysis of their evidence base - for example, noting that Santa has used the same wrapping paper as their parents or spotting inconsistencies in people's accounts of him. To allow this process to be completed independently, we should avoid correcting children's beliefs ourselves. If the cognitive labour required by children to correct their own beliefs is removed from the equation, then the potential cognitive benefits may also be removed.

As children mature, teachers can build on these positive outcomes by helping them to identify key intellectual principles derived from their experience of disenchantment. For example, people - even whole institutions - can be dishonest so we must take care in assessing the truth of information presented to us. This is especially pertinent in the era of fake news.

Alternatively, children might realise that they sometimes believe states of affairs to be true when they are actually false, which is an important lesson in intellectual humility. Equally, they can learn that strong positive feelings produced by a belief have no bearing on its truthfulness - which may later help them avoid the allure of certain desirable but false beliefs.

Like a vaccine against untruth, a measured dose of deception allows children to exercise their cognitive abilities and to internalise important principles that might provide some inoculation against future instances of deception. This outcome aligns well with a fundamental aim of education: development of children's rationality and capacity for critical thinking. Without teachers' involvement in this scheme, the chances of this aim being fulfilled are diminished.

However, what may hold certain educators back from facilitating children's further engagement with the Santa myth is the notion that this may somehow undermine the growth in children's rationality. After all, we tend to consider those who hold false or delusional beliefs as irrational in some way.

Yet the person who has been deceived, has disabused themselves of this deceit independently and has learned important lessons from this experience will be better positioned to avoid being duped again, compared with someone who has never been duped at all. Such a person may be better able to protect themself from falling victim to some of the pernicious conspiracy theories that seem to blight the world.

This justification should not grant educators carte blanche to deceive children as they wish, however. We must also seek to minimise the extent of any deception. To retain children's trust and to avoid triggering false beliefs in those of minority backgrounds, educators should avoid actively presenting Santa as real. For example, having Santa visit a setting directly deceives children by effectively presenting him as a real entity. This could damage trust and dupe previously non-believing children.

I also recall instances from my own years in the early years classroom when educators would feign phone calls to Santa to encourage children to stop misbehaving. This kind of direct, active deception is unwarranted, and tends to be used to manipulate and control children. Such blatant deception seems likely to convince non-believers about Santa's existence in the short term, while potentially damaging children's trust in educators in the long term.

In contrast, general Santa-related activities - such as reading a story or singing a song about him - avoid this problem. Imagine a scenario in which two children, Chris and Mary, are read two stories: one about Santa Claus and another about Goldilocks. Chris has never believed in Santa, so takes both stories to be fictional. Mary, on the other hand, does believe in Santa, so takes the story about him to be true, while recognising the Goldilocks tale as fantasy.

The teacher in this case should not be considered blameworthy for Mary's deceived state any more than they should be held responsible for Chris's non-deceived state. Providing that the stories were presented neutrally and no claims were made about the reality or otherwise of any of the characters, the deception has been internally rather than externally generated. If a class were to sing songs or draw pictures of Santa, the same principle would apply.

This distinction between active and passive deception is a crucial one. The first instance involves an act of doing; the latter involves an act of allowing. Outright lying about Santa Claus should not be considered as morally on a par with merely omitting the truth. Given the negative connotations of the term "deception", I think this act is better defined as keeping children in the dark. Allowing children to continue holding their false beliefs about Santa, while engaging in Christmas-related activities, should be considered only a minor impropriety - one justified by the resulting developmental benefits.

Avoiding excess at Christmas

Despite the justification offered for keeping children in the dark about Santa, critics might still want to charge educators as guilty of a form of dishonesty. However, according to the philosophical principles laid down by Aristotle and followed by modern virtue theorists, honesty, and all character virtues, should be practised with good judgement, avoiding either an excess or a deficiency in their manifestations.

By not actively deceiving children, educators avoid exercising a deficiency of honesty. Similarly, by not displaying total candour in revealing the truth about Santa, they avoid displaying an excess of honesty. If a person displayed total candour at all times, we would likely find them quite insufferable, and many consequences of their actions quite negative, so extreme honesty is best avoided. Educators merely keeping children in the dark about Santa seems like a well-judged practice of this virtue.

Although honesty and trust should be considered important values for educators to hold, they are not best expressed through total candour. Instead, we may want to characterise trust as the belief that someone has our best interests at heart.

I think that, by temporarily playing along with the Santa myth, teachers should indeed be considered to be acting in the best interests of their students. Although they may experience some emotional discomfort as a result of holding back the truth at times, this should be quelled by the fact that children will soon work out the truth for themselves. Then the real work of the educator can begin, as they support children to learn and grow from this experience - which may be the best Christmas present they can give them.

Jeff Standley is a lecturer in the philosophy of education at University College Birmingham

This article originally appeared in the 11 December 2020 issue under the headline "The Santa conspiracy"

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters