Don’t lie about Christmas, warn psychologists

It’s a wonderful lie: Six is the age when most children stop believing in Father Christmas.

Should we stop telling children the Christmas myth is true? Santa Claus, the chimney and the reindeer: it is the story we all grew up with. But some experts argue these lies can be harmful.

WARNING: do not let young children read this article.

Father Christmas does not exist. There is no cosy log cabin at the North Pole. Vixen, Cupid and Dancer do not exist, nor do the elves. A white-bearded old man does not force his way down your chimney in the dead of night to give you exactly the presents you want for Christmas.

The story has enchanted children for decades. But two academics, Professor Christopher Boyle and Dr Kathy McKay, say that the lie can undermine children’s trust in their parents. “If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?” they write.

Children tend to stop believing in Father Christmas between the ages of five and 10. Many come to this conclusion through reason and logic. But others are either brusquely informed by their more knowledgable friends or older siblings — or are told the truth in an Earth-shattering conversation with a parent.

Boyle and McKay point out several problems with the tale. Parents use Santa as a threat: “He won’t give you any presents unless you behave.” The researchers say that the fib can result in children being more likely to lie themselves. Father Christmas is also used by parents as a way of selfishly reliving their own childhood, they argue.

The scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins — who claims to have disbelieved in Father Christmas when he was 21 months old — has previously criticised the reading of any fairy tales to children as they might instil a false, unscientific view of the world.

Parents tell many lies to children.

Question: “Where do babies come from?” Answer: “They are delivered by storks, of course.”

Question: “I don’t like vegetables.” Answer: “But they’ll give you night-vision.”

Some parents even take the cruel step of telling their children that an ice-cream van plays its tune only when all the ice cream has run out.

Are such falsehoods just harmless white lies, or do they damage children’s minds?

Post-truth Christmas

What an overreaction this is, say many parents. Children are not mentally scarred by being told the truth about Father Christmas: in fact, it is healthy for them to prove that something is not true. And in any case, the tale, with its rich folklore spanning many countries, promotes children’s imaginations. It makes Christmas fun, so let’s ignore these Scrooge-like academics.

Lying is never a good thing, say others, and this is particularly true with children, who crave the truth about the world. It does not encourage the imagination, as imagining things involves knowing that they are not real. The revelation that Father Christmas does not exist breaks the crucial bonds of trust between a child and his parents.

You Decide

  1. Did your parents tell you Father Christmas existed — and would you do the same to your own children?
  2. Does lying to children about Father Christmas damage them?


  1. Find out how all your classmates discovered the truth about Father Christmas, and make a pie chart of the ways that it was revealed to them.
  2. Research another country’s Christmas traditions and list five ways in which they differ from your own.

Some People Say...

“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), German philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The myth of Father Christmas is still very popular. According to a 2011 UK poll by Ipsos MORI, 83% of parents with a child aged three to six years old said their child believes in Father Christmas.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether perpetuating the lie that Santa is real is actually harmful to children. Or if the practice should stop. On the one hand, it is an enchanting story to tell children, and it might help them to behave. On the other hand, maybe it is better to be completely honest with children from the start. In the end, it is up to parents what they choose to do. But according to Dr Justin Coulson, a psychologist and parenting expert, the best time to tell a child that Father Christmas does not exist is when they start asking if he’s real.

Word Watch

Father Christmas
Also known as St Nicholas, Santa Claus (short for St Nicholas), Santa, Père Noël in French, Babbo Natale in Italian, Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in German, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) in Russian, and Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) in Chinese.
Christopher Boyle
A psychologist at the University of Exeter in the UK.
Kathy McKay
A clinical psychologist at the University of New England in Australia.
Richard Dawkins
In a children’s book called The Magic of Reality, Dawkins attempts to persuade the reader that reality is far more fascinating than any myth or fictional story.
Large birds with long necks and long bills that they live in wetland or coastal environments. The ancient legend that storks deliver babies was popularised by a 19th-century Hans Christian Andersen story called The Storks.
Ebenezer Scrooge is a character in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The term is now used to describe anyone who is mean, miserable and curmudgeonly (bad-tempered and negative).


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