I talked about the book Parenting Beyond Belief a few posts ago and have been continuing to plug away at it - the collection of advice and information it has for raising children outside religion is really worthwhile. One thing in particular really struck me though because it provided the perfect solution to a vexing problem I encountered last year at Christmastime.
The issue was Santa Claus and what to tell a certain 3 year old about his existence. Neither Wendy nor I was particularly comfortable with lying about the existence of an omniscient, fantastically powerful being but we also felt like the Santa myth was not especially harmful in and of itself. We both have good memories of Christmas time that are all wrapped up in anticipation of loot coming from the fat man in red. When we discussed this issue with our parents we got a lot of strange looks and disbelief combined with a little disappointment - our parents had sold us on Santa Claus so it isn't surprising they took our idea of removing him from the holiday altogether as a bit of a slight against their parenting choices.
The trick is that choice to involve a child in the Santa Claus myth or not has consequences. Friends will likely believe in Santa Claus and we don't want to create a confrontation between small children over it nor do we want Elli to feel left out and disappointed because she doesn't get all the fun her friends do. We also don't want to make our parents unhappy or create rifts in the family by having a fight at family gatherings. We want to tell her the truth any time it is feasible to do so and foster an appreciation of the wonders of the real world rather than rely on myths and made up things. Last year we ended up compromising by simply not talking about Santa Claus ourselves and letting Elli either pick up on it from others - or not.
The trick that an essay in Parenting Beyond Belief taught me was so simple it is hard to believe I didn't see it at first. All we need to do is tell Elli that we are playing a game of pretend. We all pretend that Santa Claus will come and deliver presents on Christmas and everyone has a good time. We can even tell her that it is a big secret and some people even believe it but we know ^wink wink^ that it is just a good game to play during the holidays. We avoid lying to her but she can play along with her friends and all our various relatives just like she does with all her other games of pretend. Elli has a car, an elephant, several siblings and all kinds of other things that exist or don't based on her whims so a magical man who delivers presents once a year isn't that different.
I think sometimes we end up agonizing far too hard over simple yes/no decisions when there exists the possibility of saying 'maybe' and avoiding the whole problem altogether. This year we will play the game of Santa Claus pretend and have all the fun but without the Big Brother overtones and the lies.