Is lying worse than the good aspects?
Aren't the negative things it brings (telling them the truth eventually) worse than the good things?
No. Children experience the world differently than adults, due to their incomplete knowledge. It may, in fact, be harder for some children to understand that my daily departure from home for many hours is what keeps a roof over their head. There's no need to make something up until they're older, but on the other hand it brings them a sense of joy and wonder to believe in a fairy tale, if only for a short few years.
As they gain understanding they learn new things that contradict their old world views. This doesn't harm them. I knew someone who didn't realize until they were an adult that when they were told that chirping street crossing indicators were for the blind, they assumed blind drivers as a child, and didn't re-examine that until much older.
It didn't harm them to have an incorrect belief, and in the meantime they were thinking, "Wow, disabilities really don't hold you back from anything!"
You still can give them presents at this certain date without them thinking it's Santa, right?
Of course. You can give presents at any time of the year without explanation. If the explanation or reasoning has meaning to your or them, then perhaps you can explain it. There's no need to, though.
How does this lie affect children?
How much effect does it have on children when they find out you've been lying to them about Santa for years?
You really seem concerned about the lie. Perhaps you've been told or believe that to lie will irreparably damage your relationship with a person or your child.
While this is true in general, as children learn and grow they eventually separate fantasy and myth from reality. Dr. Benjamin Siegel, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine is quoted here:
What parents should assess is the values they are trying to impart and whether this myth encourages those morals. “Every culture has a fairy tale or myth that belongs to its historical identity,” Siegel says. “If the myths are good and talk about sharing and helping your neighbor, then that’s really nice.”
So as you approach a myth you want to present as reality to your children you should be asking yourself what it teaches your child. What values are you trying to promote? Does the myth help or hinder that?
Further in the same article:
Parents worry that they will have to break the news to their children and shatter their whole vision of Christmas. However, many children come to this realization on their own around age seven or eight, Siegel says. And when they do, they are basically unscathed. Siegel cites a study that revealed that children who learned the truth may have been upset, but not nearly as upset as the parents.
“Most kids do fine when they learn a myth is not real,” he says. “Sometimes parents feel very badly because they want their kids to continue to believe in Santa Claus. Maybe parents like the myth because it makes them feel good, or because kids get disappointed in them when they find out the truth. Kids realize that parents aren’t so powerful, but that happens in adolescence anyway.”
And from my personal experience* my children who have gone through this transition are perfectly fine, and trust me as much as I'd expect them to, given their developmental stage. They clearly understand the difference between myth and reality, and they continue to participate in the myth for a variety of reasons despite their disbelief.
What are the consequences of not playing santa?
What would the negative effects be if you never tell them Santa exists?
I have a friend whose parents did not present santa clause to them at all - they had to learn the story through movies and friends. As an adult they feel like they missed out - and as a result her children get perhaps an over-santa Christmas. They never had a time when they felt that believing joy, and they feel as though they lost out on a small part of childhood as experienced by most children in the US.
So on the cultural side of things, Santa as a shared myth is a connecting influence rather than a disconnecting influence. In a very interesting article by Dwight Longnecker we read, "...in an increasingly global society, myth is a universal language. " The article goes on to show that shared myths connect people to society and learn societal truths in ways that cannot easily be done through simple rational thought.
Of course, you can share the santa myth as a myth from the beginning, but they will never experience that myth.
That might be right for you and your family, but I'd hesitate to use such absolute language and universally discourage every parent from allowing their children to experience the myth rather than simply learn of it.
Of course there is the risk that your kid will tell other kids that do believe in Santa about it, but I think this could be easily handled. Could it?
A lot of this depends on how you present it, and your child's temperament. If they already have a great deal of empathy, and you explain well that other children like to or are taught to believe that it's real, your child may show some restraint in offering corrections to other children.
It can be hard for some children, particularly those who value truth above all else and have a strong sense of justice, to allow others to believe in something they themselves don't believe in. It can be hard for even adults to do this, so we can hardly place the blame on children.
I don't think it can be easily handled. However, I do believe you can defend yourself with the simple fact that the truth is on your side, and thus you might not suffer any ill effects. Unfortunately that might not be true for other children or their families. I don't think there's any way you can spare them without strictly instructing your child that they are not allowed to spoil the other children's fun - and then hoping that they follow those instructions.
The more involved you are in the santa myth, though, the more easily your child will avoid these issues entirely. Reminding them every other day when they talk about santa that santa isn't real will prevent them from pretending. When they talk about Dora you don't continually remind them that dora isn't real - they already know. So you needn't offer corrections. You can leave out cookies and milk, or give them a present "from" santa and they will see that pretending is ok - and thus they might give others the choice and chance to pretend without constant correction and possible arguments.
Good effect of "playing" santa
Now, on to the good stuff. You never asked if playing santa has had any particularly good effects. It has, in fact.
Our children are more skeptical, and try to work things out for themselves a little more rather than blindly trusting an authority figure.
I can tell my children that they shouldn't blindly trust authority figures, but what I discovered is that if I didn't model the behavior of society to some degree, no matter what I told them they would believe me. And when I told them to trust someone else, they would blindly follow that person. This has a lot of risks in life. Sure, they would eventually figure things out on their own, but santa gives a relatively safe space for them to explore what truth is, how to discover false stories, and, most importantly, to seek out the truth even in the face of a supposed authority.
Yes, I want my children to trust me, but I also want them to understand that there are absolute truths, half truths, and myths or lies. Discerning the difference will be important for them as youth and adults.
And if I falter as a parent, they have the skills and ability to chalk it up to me being human, and discovering the truth themselves.
There are certainly other ways to do this, but the santa myth accomplishes several things with little to no disappointment or harm.
of course there are ways to present it that will ultimately damage your relationship. But if done thoughtfully, and with an air of fantasy, it can actually strengthen you relationship, and give your children skills they will need as adolescents and adults, and, helpfully, they'll have it by the time they reach the mental stage where it will most be needed.
* I have 8 children, 3 of which know the truth, one of which probably knows but hasn't let on, and the other four are still experiencing the myth as though true. Our only rule is that once you stop believing in santa, you no longer get gifts from him - they still receive what they would in either case, but none come from santa. This has presented a new challenge to the older crew - and so far they've chosen to continue the pretense. We've involved them more in the behind the scenes activities as well. But, honestly, we don't really get into it. We might leave cookies out once every few years, and presents from santa are typically smaller toys, they get the good stuff (and clothes) from us.
There was no big reveal, crying, or evident disappointment. As they grew and experienced others' beliefs they came to their own conclusion, and when pressed for an answer, we would simply state the rule. "I'm not going to tell you what to believe, you'll have to decide for yourself based on the best evidence you have. However, I should let you know that 'santa' gives gifts to those who at least appear to believe - so the fun isn't ruined for the younger children."