A recent study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry questions the morality behind parents' willingness to lie to their children about the existence of Santa Claus. The two authors, Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia, and Christopher Boyle, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, discuss the weakening of relationships between parents and children because of a Santa myth that spurs recurrent unhealthy lies.

The Santa myth

Lying is a selfish practice, especially if it is done knowingly. However, the concept of white lies has usually been accepted in our societies, for they seek to protect the subject, apparently.

One may include the lies behind the Santa myth in this group. Many parents persistently tell their kids that Santa Claus exists, and, in doing so, encourage them to believe in a magical but groundless world.

A damaged parent-child relationship

The authors suggest that parents are at risk of losing their children’s’ trust when the day comes that the kids learn about the nonexistence of Santa Claus. Their world could be shattered when the truth is ultimately unveiled, and their memories of their parents’ continuous lying on the matter may live long. The authors speak of possible “abject disappointment” resulting from such a dramatic event in the life of a naïve child.

McKay explains: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw.” Losing the trust of one's kid can be devastating.

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McKay sees a long-term harm that can be impeded if the myth is addressed properly and honestly by parents. In the short term, the kid will enjoy believing in a world of magic and sharing exciting stories with his/her friends. However, when the deception is uncovered, the kid may look at his/her parents with different eyes. He/she was deceived once but will make sure not to be deceived again, argue the authors.

Boyle adopts a less extremist position. He even admits that he would probably go along with the Santa myth if he had kids. However, he condemns parents’ use of this myth to threaten and control their children’s behavior. Many parents instill in their kids a sense of fear of not receiving gifts from Santa if their behavior is not acceptable. He adds: “It’s potentially not the best parenting method. You’re talking about a mythical being deciding whether you’re getting presents or not.”

Why the Santa myth persists?

Two reasons are presented to address why such a lie persists globally. First, humans, in many occasions, conform and follow the crowd, regardless of the consequences. Parents, thus, feel it is easier to lie like most parents do. Second, these situations enable parents to immerse themselves, even a little, in this joyful and imaginary world that helps them reminisce about better times when they were kids. “We’re trying to hark back to our glory days as children,” says Boyle.