“On a busy day twenty-two thousand people come to visit Santa, and I was told that it is an elf’s lot to remain merry in the face of torment and adversity. I promised to keep that in mind.”
― David Sedaris
Living with a seven-year-old around this time of year gets interesting. On one hand, she’s in second grade now and is learning all sorts of things. We are so very thankful that she’s learning. Heaven forbids the child to grow up ignorant and marry a Republican. On the other hand, however, she doesn’t always get her facts straight. The child is easily confused, such as the difference between God and god. She doesn’t get it. Therefore, when she’s told that “gods aren’t real,” in reference to Greek and Roman mythologies, our child comes home sounding like an atheist.
“God isn’t real, you know” she announced recently. “He’s just something somebody made up.”
Uhmmmmmm … Now how the hell am I supposed to respond to that?
“Okay, baby girl, if that’s what you want to believe.” That’s what I said. I didn’t feel comfortable saying it, but I felt the need to support her.
I waited for her brother to respond. After all, he’s eight years old, almost nine. He knew everything we did last year and now he’s pretty sure he knows more than us. He typically takes the exact opposite view of anything his sister says, so I was interested in his opinion. I didn’t have long to wait.
“Some people believe in God even if he isn’t real,” he said. “It’s okay for people to believe in things that are not real. You know, like San …” He caught himself and saw the stern look I shot his direction. He had pretty much stopped believing in Santa last year, all on his own. His conversion to full-scale nonbeliever happened this past Spring when he looked up the North Pole on Google Maps. Somehow. I tried it and came up with nothing. OF course, there’s North Pole, Alaska, but what he saw was a barren field of snow. No houses. No way to build a house. Therefore, nowhere for Santa to build a house. No house, no elves. No elves, no Santa. So goes the eight-year-old’s logic. He’s been warned, with the threat of getting no presents, to not spoil Santa for his sister. He stopped himself just in time.
His sister, in true sibling fashion, doubled-down on her argument. “God doesn’t exist and believing in something that doesn’t exist is just stupid.”
Her brother shot back, “You don’t get to tell people what they can believe, you know. They have to make up their minds for their self.”
Okay, maybe the kid is smarter than we are. He’s definitely more on top of the game than many adults I know.
That deal with kids and God
The Young Woman (TYW) and I are very careful in how we approach any manner of religious conversation with the kids. We each grew up Southern Baptist. She even had the displeasure of attending a parochial school through eighth grade. We each made our own journey away from those teachings for different reasons. She had taken the kids to church a couple of times before I showed up, but wasn’t consistent in going and didn’t make a big deal of the whole religion thing, to begin with. Moreover, she had a copy of the Q’ran sitting on the shelf next to the Bible and can speak with relative fluency to either belief system.
We had the discussion about religion when I joined the family. I was well into my general agnosticism and specific disdain for evangelicals by that point but was occasionally known to slip into a back pew for special services just because I like the music. I didn’t want my lack of belief to interfere with whatever she had going with the kids. She filled me in on their bit of history and we agreed that should the kids have any questions that we would answer them as fairly and reasonably as we could, but leave things open so they could make their own decision. If they want to go to church, or synagogue, or worship center, we are willing to accommodate that so long as we can verify it’s not a doomsday cult (which is getting increasingly difficult).
Of course, those who are religious are adamant about teaching children about their belief system from the earliest moments possible. TYW and I went through that indoctrination ourselves. Yes, let’s be totally honest, Sunday School is indoctrination. What adults do is Bible study. The difference is that ability to judge for oneself what is or isn’t real, whether what one is being told is true or not. Adults have the ability (allegedly) to make that differentiation on their own. Children, for the most part, do not. When we push a given belief system onto children in an authoritative manner, we are indoctrinating them. The only choice they’re making is whether to obey their parent(s), not whether they want to follow a belief system.
Our daughter is proof that they don’t always understand the religious concepts being taught. She still doesn’t understand the difference between God and god but her opinion as to whether a deity exists wavers back and forth, depending on the day and what is being studied at school. Earlier this week, she told me that the seasons change, “because God’s wife keeps coming and going to hell and back.”
I had to think about that one for a moment. God’s wife? She took my pause as the need to explain.
“Hades was in love with her but God didn’t want to give her up and so she goes back and forth so they’ll both be happy and that’s why we have our seasons,” she explained, complete with hand gestures.
Ah, I got it. “You mean, Persephone?”
Her little eyes grew wide with amazement. “How did you know about her?”
Daddy’s not quite as dumb as he looks, or feels for that matter. I just love that the school is inadvertently teaching polyamory along with the mythology, too. I wonder how many of the kids can identify with splitting their time between two different sets of parents? Love who you choose to love, even if you have to divide your time between seasons.
This is not getting any easier.
The whole Santa Claus thing
While our little one may be confused about the deities, she is quite certain in her belief of Santa Claus and no, we’re not doing anything to stop it. Our take has been that it’s one of the few innocent elements of childhood that hasn’t yet been corrupted for her. We’ll let her keep that belief as long as she wants, even if, somehow, that goes into adulthood (not that we actually think that might happen). Her belief in Santa doesn’t affect her generosity toward others nor does it undermine her social progress significantly. Most of her classmates still believe, her teacher supports that belief system, so we’re all good.
Yes, I’m aware that certain psychologists say that children are better off knowing the unvarnished truth about Santa right from the beginning [source]. These so-called “professionals” use the reasoning that, “when we use a coercive, manipulative strategy to get our kids to behave, we are relying on extrinsic contingencies by telling them to be good in order to get what they want. And once that motivation is gone, how do we know they’ll still feel compelled to behave?”
Uhm, who the fuck uses Santa to get kids to behave all year long? Hell, it has never worked on any of my kids more than a week out from Christmas, and even then it’s shaky at best. No, it is quite possible to support a child’s belief in Santa and still teach them to behave appropriately. Children don’t believe in Santa out of fear but because he represents love—and presents. Children are greedy little bastards.
Then, the psychologists say that Research shows that kids who are lied to by their parents are more likely to lie themselves. They are correct on that one. Lying to your children repeatedly, especially when they catch you, sets them up for some real problems in dealing with the truth as teens and sometimes even as adults.
When it comes to Santa, though, we’re not lying so much as we are supporting a belief system. If believing in Santa is lying, then the same argument could be made that telling them about God, or Allah, or Vishnu, or Buddha could also be lying. Any religion one might want to choose is on as equally tenuous ground as is Santa.
I asked the little one when she wanted to write her annual letter to Santa. Her response was filled with the skepticism she has picked up from adults.
“Not now. Next Friday is Black Friday and we need to see if we survive that first,” she said, while thoroughly occupied by a learning game on her Kindle.
I just sat there and blinked at her. We don’t shop on Black Friday. Never have. I didn’t realize we are in danger.
Balancing our personal mythologies
Let’s get real for a moment. We all have our mythologies. Not all of them are necessarily religious in nature, but we have them. For example, how many of us were taught that if we would just “work hard” we would be successful? All my life I have been force fed countless examples of people who worked hard and made a lot of money. The truth, however, is that maxim applies to fewer than one percent of the world’s population. Most people who work hard end up with exhausted bodies, dependent on government and family support to survive their waning years, and typically die without enough money to pay for their funerals. My parents and grandparents are all good examples of how wrong the myth is. Yet, we still pass the myth along to our children as though it were gospel.
Mythologies have their purpose. They teach us to be better people, to be compassionate, loving, and merciful. They also warn us what happens when we do the opposite. One thing about mythologies is that they don’t tend to let bad folks get away with much. Being bad typically results in some rather extreme consequences, such as losing one’s head, being turned to stone, or swallowed by a snake. All of these are great moral tales that reinforce the lessons we should carry with us through life. Tell the truth. Be kind to other people, even if you don’t know them. Don’t lie or deceive. Don’t take what isn’t yours.
As adults, we theoretically have the reasoning capability to decide for ourselves which mythologies, if any, we wish to believe. Some choose to follow the teachings of a particular deity, a decision that can be quite popular when everyone else in one’s community supports that same belief system. Some choose to not follow any mythologies at all, arguing that lies are lies even when their intentions may be honorable and that we are better off seeking the truth for ourselves.
Children, however, don’t have that reasoning capability yet. While we can tell them stories and hope that they pick up on the moral lessons they contain, their “belief” is typically limited to following along with members of their own communities, such as their classmates or playtime friends. Forcing a belief on them that cannot be fully supported by science and established rules of research is potentially damaging as they inevitably discover the fallacies of the myth.
There’s no long-term harm in allowing a child to believe in Santa, nor is there any real danger in a disbelief of Zeus, or Hercules, or Jesus. At this point in our children’s lives, there are much more important struggles to face. Picking up one’s own laundry is a constant struggle. Dealing with the natural consequences of our actions is a challenge we face every day. Not bullying one’s sibling seems to come up about every five minutes or so. Those are the lessons that are important.
Most critical of all, though, is that children learn to love. While myths can do a great job of reinforcing that value, the primary source of a child’s belief in love and their ability to practice it depends almost wholly on how it is taught through their parents’ example. What you and I do, what we say not only to them but to other people, how we respond to the challenges life throws at us, teaches them how to treat others. If we demonstrate love in all we do it is almost impossible for them to do otherwise.
I asked our little one what she thinks is the real meaning of Christmas. “Snow day,” she said. No mention of Santa. No mention of gods. No mention of Persephone. I can’t argue with that reasoning, though. We live in Indiana. There is almost always snow by Christmas. Why would she expect anything different?
Kids. Look at them constantly reminding us that we’re over-thinking things. Maybe they really do know more than the rest of us.
Abide in Peace,
The Old Man