Parents face a choice. Do they teach their children that there really is a Santa Claus or an Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or even such other creatures as elves, mermaids, fairies, gnomes, etc...? Or do they teach their children that such creatures are make-believe: fantasies and pleasant stories that bring joy, amusement, and delight.
Some do. Some don't.
I wonder if you can guess which category I fall into?
My children have created a game of make-believe: a world they have created entirely on their own and popluated with all kinds of fantastical creatures and special abilities. They play it regularly and often for several hours at a time.
One of my daughter's classes this year is an Introduction to Metaphysics (nature of the universe as a whole) and Epistemology (nature and the means of human knowledge). During her second class she asked if learning philosophy would ruin their pretend game.
One atheist mother who does teach that fantasy characters are real said this of her decision, "I love leading my kids on and promoting their belief in them all. I actively encourage it. I pacify that hypocritical pang because I figure in the long run, its part of the whole childhood thing of working out reality vs. make-believe for themselves.
I am having trouble reconciling this view with the notion held by many atheists that children should not be exposed to religion before they are old enough to decide for themselves the difference between real and make-believe, between faith and reason, between belief and scientific knowledge. Shouldn't our job as parents be to make it as obvious as possible the difference between real and pretend?
Being a parent is hard. The older they get, the harder it is, because the consequences are so much more long-lasting. If you screw up when the child is one year old, there is a minimal chance they will remember it. If you screw up when the child is older, not only will they remember it and ask questions about it, but there is the potential for them being scarred for life by it. All this stress over the long term consequences of possible minor mishaps.
How about something as important to a child as Santa Claus?
Santa does not exist. That's right Virginia; he's a story, a fantasy. That does not mean kids who don't believe in Santa can't enjoy Christmas.
My mate and I never lied to our children about fantasy creatures- any of them. We told them fantasy characters like Santa are a delightful pretend; a story that is told in December; a fantasy game, if you will, that people play because it makes the time special, mysterious, and exciting.
Do we pretend that Santa comes on Christmas Eve night and leaves presents? Yes
Have my children enjoyed the holiday any less knowing that Mom and Dad are really Santa Claus? No. I don't think so.
Will my children ever have to find out the hard way that ["Pssst....Do you believe in Santa Claus? You do? Ha ha!!!! You're such a baby! Everyone knows Santa is just your parents!"] their parents' have been lying to them? No
Always I've tried to be honest with my two. Honest about having a bad day or when I need time to myself. Honest about their own emotional experiences, the physical changes their bodies go through, sex, even the meaning behind sly adult innuendo that they overhear.
As an atheist parent, this pretending about Santa et al. causes a special dilemma for me. By encouraging them to PRETEND to believe in Santa Claus and participating in that game of pretend myself....have I still done them a disservice?
I went through years of my life pretending to be a christian. Forbidding myself to look hard at the bible and ask the difficult questions. Shutting off my mind and trying to only feel with my heart. I never got to the born-again stage of christianity. But I certainly beliebed that I was a christian. Up until I was 13 the only place I'd come in contact with the idea of being born-again was in religious fiction like the books of Janette Oke. Many of her characters experience "born-again" moments so I had an idea of what emotions were involved in the experience, expectations of what could and should happen. The thoughts that the characters had as they accepted jesus as their savior.
I think that is why, when I tried twice to be born-again myself that I waited passively for those feelings to come to me. For the emotions that I thought would announce my....rebirth. When they didn't happen, I felt morally obligated to pretend that they had so as not to embarrass or disappoint the person I was with.
Have I left my own children vulnerable to pretending to believe? For faking a belief in something to please people around me? Have I left them vulnerable to pretending to believe in god?
The answer her teacher gave about whether philosophy would ruin their pretend game was "No, for the most part it will not. You already have a firm grasp on the difference between real and make-believe, so nothing will change."