Santa and Pascal’s Wager

Melissa Lipscomb’s latest domestic disturbance is up. It’s about all the Christmas lies that parents tell, and an interesting one. The following passage made me laugh out loud:

A few days ago Adam left the house and used his cell phone to call Alec in the guise of Santa with a timely reminder that calling people “idiot” was liable to provoke the direst consequences. It’s a bit soon to tell, but I can report that Alec hasn’t used the word again since then.

I personally don’t remember ever believing in Santa, though I guess a forecast of my philosophical future can be found in my first memory about Santa. I was asking my father a bunch of uncomfortable logical questions about how the hell Santa could be in the next mall we were visiting when we’d seen him in another mall earlier that day, as well as on the street, and in other cities. And why he never really looked the same from place to place.

My father tried to keep the myth going a little longer, by telling me that in fact Santa sent out elves in disguise to fill in for him at shopping malls around the world, since he was too busy supervising the work at the North Pole. I asked how they could have so many sleds and reindeers, and my father confided that Santa had upgraded to helicopters long ago.

Unless I’m mixing up two memories, I think at this point I admitted to my father that I knew… that I absolutely knew that there was no such thing as Santa. And I remember him hushing me up and glancing to see whether my younger sisters were listening.

Incidentally, the same kind of thing played out many years later when I started asking questions about Yahweh, except that nobody offered real answers to my questions. Instead, it was implied that those questions weren’t okay, weren’t allowed, and that disbelieving wasn’t really an acceptable route. I was pretty much made to attend church regularly until I moved out, though it became very obvious that this distressed me and that I was not happy or comforted in doing so, the way that others seemed to be.

It’s strange, this parallel. Did my figuring out that Santa didn’t exist prefigure my eventual reaction toward Catholic doctrine? Is it a result of temperament? Or did my own, independently-reached conclusion that I’d been outright deceived about other supernatural beings (Santa, the tooth fairy, the easter bunny) lead me to questioning the biggest supernatural claim of all?

I don’t know, but it seems to me that almost every Westerner I know has gone through this experience. (I really should ask Lime, but I don’t think the Santa Myth is so common here, and she may not have experienced it herself. I really should ask her.) I doubt that the disillusionment of discovering that Santa’s a lie leads us to questioning other claims, though, because millions of people who learned that Mom and Dad were BS-ing them about Santa still believe other inherited claims about supernatural beings. I wonder if, instead, this teaches people that questioning things directly can lead to pain and disappointment, and reinforces theism in many people?

Or maybe there’s no connection at all. I don’t know. But it is an interesting comparison. When we compare specifically what methods are used to coerce children into believing in Santa or believing God, the methods look rather similar to me: ceremonial “encounters” with the supernatural being, yearly rituals of great significance, rewards and punishments, claims and continual reminders of their omniscience, and a great deal of pleasure and reward attendant to acting in such a way that one seems very much like one believes. (Which, in children, I think, eventually can lead to belief outright.)

This seems to me radically different from how we teach children to think rationally and ethically when we don’t rely on religion. Kids have a way of asking questions that cut to the heart of the matter, and I discovered the theodicy on my own as a young boy, and causing my mother some annoyance at the question of how a loving God could create evil. Most religious parents I know don’t even really know the official doctrine that well, and are forced to make up answers to such questions. But There’s no reason to bullshit kids when we tell them why, say, stealing is wrong. When they say why, we can provide sensible reasons and examples. We can also demonstrate how it feels to have something stolen from oneself. And of course, we can explain that when one does to others what one does not want done to oneself, it’s understood as wrong. We don’t need to appeal to universal, invisible, supernatural laws or beings. We can straightforwardly talk about right and wrong, including grey areas. Not so with religion. Kids haven’t internalized the rules about what not to question, and which contradictions to ignore. As a result, they have a tendency to ask the very questions that could, if examined closely and seriously, could drive an adult to agnosticism, atheism, or, at the least, a very critical and radical view of their own religion’s orthodox dogmas and claims.

The interesting thing is that parents who depend on theology to teach their children ethics are doing what parents who depend on Santa are doing: both Jesus and Santa want you to be good. But what if Jesus’ or Santa’s representative tells me that X is good but it looks bad to me? Children who aren’t taught — at some point, anyway — to reason through it will be left with no choice but to inarticulately rebel, or to follow bad advice. In a sense, for a child Pascal’s Wager applied to Santa makes sense: kids gain a lot by believing in Santa, and gain nothing but knowledge for not believing in Santa. But what’s funny is that, if they keep quiet about their disbelief, they lose nothing by not believing in Santa, and they gain knowledge about the world and, rather more importantly, about the psychology of their parents. So Pascal’s Wager applied to Santa suggests that disbelief is the better option.

This reminds me of another common complaint I hear about teenagers, which is that they’re rebellious. In fact, my experience is that some of them are, but a lot of them are just human beings with growing independence and minds of their own, whose parents aren’t quite ready for that. When parents complain that their teenagers are rebellious, I find it says at least something about how they’re parenting. I wasn’t really a rebellious teenager. I rarely acted out of spite, though I questioned almost everything my parents told me to do. I asked them for reasonable explanations, but they were from that generation that had, from their own parents, learned to say, “Because I say so.”

I don’t have kids, so of course I’m speaking from a void of experience, but I think, while, “Because I say so,” can work for a young child, there comes a point where it no longer is a feasible answer. (And observation of a few cases suggests that for exceptionally intelligent children, it can be foregone right from the start.) Anyway, I’m not criticizing the use of “Because I say so” any more than I’m castigating a smack on the bum–Bill Cosby himself noted that a smack on the butt and “Because I said so” make sense for a loving parent in an extreme case, like when a kid almost runs out into traffic–but I do think that, along the line, there must at some point arise something else between, “Because I say so,” and, “It’s my house and those are the rules and if you don’t like it, move out.” The method of handling objections to the house rules and parental dictates and expectations need to change when a kid grows up some, and to expect the method to work is hopeless. That much I know already from experience. Developing a relationship of trust with one’s kids probably helps, though. And trust, it seems to me, can develop if one explains oneself, even though, yes, with the power dynamic of most households, parents don’t need to explain themselves to their kids.

This brings me back to Santa. I imagine that in a nuclear family, the “death of Santa” is probably more distressing to a lot of kids than the death of a remote, barely-known grandparent, which in itself is weird if you think about it. I wonder if, coming so early on, this kind of disillusionment isn’t something that shoots parents in the foot. I can think of no surer way to make kids become permanently distrustful of their parents than to lie to them about something for the first few years of their lives and then use that lie to indirectly control their behaviour. (Or, at least, to convince them to restrict their “objectionable” behaviour to when they can’t be caught by an authority figure.) It’d be very interesting to look at how Santa-believing and Santa-non-believing households differ years down the line. I’d be fascinated to see studies in that area, but I wonder whether anyone has ever conducted them.

Again, this isn’t an indictment of parents who make their kids believe in Santa… but I do think such a weird practice deserves some careful consideration and thought. It actually might not be good for kids, after all, or for parents, in the long run. And what’s weird is that we don’t often think about the effects of this massive, culture-wide hoodwinking in any rigorous way. And that, again, makes me think of how critical discussion of religion is, also, effectively banned from the table in a lot of places.

I guess I’ll find out someday for myself.

UPDATE: I don’t know why comments and pings were banned on this post, but now they are not. Have at!

13 thoughts on “Santa and Pascal’s Wager

  1. My mom never gave me “because I said so” line.

    I go with the “NO!” and once that has their attention (and has C. in tears, often), I explain why I’m forbidding it.

    Some of the explanations get weird, like, “The doggy door is for doggies, and we’re people. People don’t go through doggy doors except in emergencies and this isn’t an emergency.” (That way, I’ve given myself the loophole I may need one day, without undermining myself.)

    Of course, they don’t always buy the “it’s dangerous, you could get hurt, and I don’t want you to get hurt” line, but occasionally they DO get hurt, and it hasn’t been serious yet (knock wood, or is that too superstitious for you?), and they’re getting the point that yes, Mommy is actually watching out for them, and not just being a big meanie.

  2. Oh, that didn’t address Santa per se.

    I’m not telling my kids that there’s a Santa.

    They’re none of them verbal enough to say anything one way or another to anyone else.

    I don’t know what they’re getting at school besides, “Gee, it’s fun to glue cotton balls to paper while someone babbles about Santa, whoever he is!”

    And we’re not into the TV specials that are about Santa.

    Toys come from Mommy, Daddy, sometimes from Grandmas, and occasionally from Uncle B., Aunt J. and Uncle J. And some of the grownup friends who come by the house to visit sometimes. I sometimes mention the people who gave them the toys as they’re playing with them.

  3. Julia,

    I got the “because I said so” line a lot when I was younger, but perhaps I shouldn’t assume others did. I should add, I think it increased when I was teenager, since then the struggles were more about authority and about trying to shield me from things they thought I wasn’t ready for. For example, “No going to the lake to camp with my girlfriend and her family becase the camp is a less-uspervised area where thngs might get out of hand and you never know how you might screw up the rest of your life with a baby,” wasn’t really something they wanted to put on the radar, and they weren’t sure it was on the radar, so they tried the authority gambit instead. At least that was how I understood it then. That, and they wanted me to get a summer job, in a town where Uni kids got most of the summer jobs.

    I like the idea of leaving a loophole for emergencies, even with (especially with) the doggie door.

    As for Santa, that’s cool. I kind of assumed the Santa thing was universal among Westerners, and I’m happy to see more diversity around the place. :) Not to castigate those who do talk Santa, mind. It’s just nice to see other approaches.

  4. Oh, Myoung and I have deliberated over the Santa thing for 2 years now – this time last year we’d decided it was a lie and we wouldn’t do it, but we’ve changed our minds and agreed to go with it for now. It’s fun, magical make-believe, like faeries and hefalumps and talking dogs. However, ours is an unconditional Santa – he’s not here for behaviour modification. In fact we don’t use the word “good” around here at all in reference to behaviour. And the moment the kids ask about the reality of Santa they’ll get the truth, but we’ll still play for as long as its fun. The way we’ll approach it, it’s no more a “lie” than any other fictitious character we talk about. I think it depends on the nature of that particular parent-child relationship and the trust there.

    Incidentally, I reckon if you have time to smack on the butt for running out in traffic, you have time to grab the child and tell them “danger!” I can’t see ANY situation where a smack is the better option.

    Have a lovely Christmas Gord and Lime.

  5. Mer,

    Like I said, I’m not castigating anyone on their choice. I do think Santa’s a little different from other fictional characters, of course, because if he’s an unseen agent who’s actually doing something tangible. I don’t think I’d personally be comfortable with that either…

    Out of curiosity, which adjectives do you use to describe appropriate and inappropriate choices of behaviour? I’m curious.

    As for smacking the butt, well, I think if it’s going to commit something to memory better, it might just be a better than emphasizing an abstraction that doesn’t, you know, might just be hard to “get”. I’m pretty certain I never grasped the idea of “danger” until I was eight or so… I pretty clearly remember finally getting it that people can be irreparably harmed, which suggests it happened later on in my childhood. I’m pretty certain a few whacks on the bottom reinforced not to do something in a way that abstractions didn’t. Because I’ve often heard from friends that kids can be frighteningly unaware of how much danger surrounds them just because there’s so much of it everywhere.

    Of course, being now childless I’ve not so carefully considered it. This discussion reminds me of one time Lime and I were taking a taxi. Some mommy was with her kids, basically ignoring the as they walked in the middle of a sidewalk-less street. The kid wandered off in front of the taxi, and the mom, not paying attention, didn’t notice till the last minute. Then she slapped the kid. Even the cabbie was like, “Jesus, woman, it’s your fault, not your kid’s! You should be holding his hand or something. Don’t whack him around because *you’re* a inattentive parent!” That’s one thing I’ve noted, physical punishment often tends to be a pressure release valve for parents who don’t know what else to do. And that sucks, and teaches a child that hitting people is a good way to let off stress. I know what it’s like, and I am not for that, anyway.

  6. My mom discussed the Santa thing with me when I was in my teens — she and my father had discussed it, and didn’t want to have us buying into it, BUT — there were kids we’d be playing with that would be talking about Santa, and my mom didn’t want to be getting grief from other moms over the whole Santa thing, so we did Santa.

    Now, one of the bad things about the whole Santa thing is the pressure to put little kids on a strange guy’s lap for a photo or something. My mom would take us to “see Santa”, but there was never any pressure there. One year, when we’d been waiting in the line almost half an hour and were close to the front of the line, the reactions of some of the children in front of me were bothering me badly, and I told my mom that I didn’t want to see Santa this time. Since my sister was too young to care one way or the other at this point, my mom basically told me it was OK and we got out of the line and left. There were mothers in that line that would have chewed out their kids in a heartbeat for that (crying children being dumped on Santa’s lap at least indicated such an attitude on the part of some of the parents in that line), but my mom wasn’t going to push it. The Santa thing was for me, and if I wasn’t comfortable with some part of it, fine, we didn’t have to DO that part.

    My sister figured it out when she was 3, but realized it made other people around her happier if they believed she still believed in Santa, and strung us all along until she was 8, at which point she came clean. (8 is a little old for Santa, I think.)

    Hm. I got an idea for presents for next year — print up little color pictures of the GIVER and the RECIPIENT onto stickers and use those to label presents — that’ll make it clearer as to just who is giving the present. :) I don’t know if I’ll actually manage the execution, but it’s an idea.

    Right now, Grandma is reading _The Cat In The Hat_ in the livingroom. That’s a nice thing. :) (Nothing to do with Santa, but everything to do with people who actually give the kids presents. And presence.)

  7. Oh, and the irresponsible parent thing? I had a clerk in the grocery store confide to me that he’d’ve smacked the kid in the cart in front of mine for pitching a fit like that one was. I had felt neutral about that clerk, but that tipped me to avoiding him in the future, because anyone with any sense about little kids could SEE that the kid was tired and at the end of his rope, and it was the MOTHER’s effin’ fault, not the kid’s, that the kid was pitching a fit, and if anyone deserved a smack, it was the MOTHER.

    I pitched exactly one full-blown fit in public, and my sister zero. The one fit I pitched was pitched a good half-hour after my naptime SHOULD have started; my mom realized the time, dropped what she’d been carrying to pay for where she was, and took me home as quickly as possible. Since we were dependent on public transportation, it wasn’t as quick as she might have liked, but she spent the whole way telling me it wasn’t MY fault I felt so miserable, but HER fault, and I at least had the comfort of not being the responsible party in the matter of my feeling so rotten as to pitch a fit. Lots of apology. And she never, ever had either me or my little sister (born probably a year or so after the incident in question) out into naptime again.

  8. One interesting thing is how some parents don’t differentiate between kids’ abilities to handle stresses or whatever. Some kids handle things really well, and others get anxious and scared or cranky easily. It’s probably not good to expect all kids to handle things in the same way, just as we cannot expect adults to.

  9. Yes.

    I try to be alert for what sort of things cause more stress for each of my children – whether it be Babar’s mother being shot or the sound of a sporting event coming from the TV – and take that into consideration whenever I’m doing something that will affect them.

  10. Yeah. I like what Julia says.

    I say it’s almost always the parents’ fault when kids mess up (at this young age we’re in now, toddlerhood to early elementary age). Parents ought to be on the lookout for what might set a kid off – the overtiredness, the too many people in the room, hunger, something tempting to climb on that shouldn’t be climbed upon – be aware whether you are “setting a kid up for failure” by putting them in a situation that they won’t be able to handle without help. If the child is known to run into roads, don’t let go of his hand or stand chatting on the edge of a street!

    Luca knows roads are dangerous. We tell him every time we walk along one that we shouldn’t walk ON it. If we are forced to walk on it we discuss the possibility of a car coming. When we say “a car’s coming!” he skittles up onto the verge as fast as he can. I don’t believe little kids are unaware of dangers. They may not physically have capabilities to move fast enough or judge distance, and they do get distracted, but we are not here to hit them if they make a judgement error. They will remember getting hit for sure, and it may “teach” them to stay off roads, but it also teaches them that mum and dad are capable of hurting them. Like you said, a smack is just a pressure release valve for the parent. Responsive and gentle parenting takes a little more thought and effort but it does “work” to send the message you want to send. If you are tired/lazy/at the end of your tether you are more likely to just lash out. Well I do get to the end of my tether but I’ve made a conscious decision to not use smacking in my parenting bag of tricks. And it’s going really well for all of us.

    I would even go so far as to guess that children who do have their actions and movements regulated with a heavy hand could become oblivious to their surroundings and any danger, used to only being on the lookout for one kind of danger – the smack. Having all their control coming from an external source, they are tuned in only to the approval or disapproval of an adult, depending on someone else to give them cues for behaviour all the time and lacking any reponsibility for their own actions (just on the lookout for what they can “get away with” within the constraints of their parents’ control).

    You asked about the adjectives we use … I guess we refrain from passing comment/judgement on Luca’s actions in general. I don’t think it’s our place to judge his actions. He can see pure delight in our faces if he’s done something clever or cool, and if he’s just achieved something for the first time he has his own inner sense of pride to make him happy. He does things that make him feel good from the inside, he’s not motivated by our external praise or disapproval, you know?

    If he is doing somthing that’s not appropriate, we might say “People don’t like it when ___”, or “I don’t like that” or “That hurts!” and he might say he wants to do it anyway, or have a little whine, but he usually respects other people’s feelings in the same way we respect his. Like tonight he wanted to put his feet up on the dinner table. We said “The dinner table is for clean food and your feet are dirty, we don’t want our table to have dirty feet on it”, and there was a little bit of a confrontation, a bit of a feet-on-the-table stand-off, we had to discuss it for a minute and he said “NO, I WANT to put my feet on the table”, to which I replied ‘It does look very comfy but we don’t like it”, and he took them off. There was no need for a threat or a value judgement about his behaviour – we make it about what WE feel, WE weren’t happy with the behaviour. So it’s not about labelling or judging who HE is (naughty/cheeky/clever/good/shy/bossy), we just talk about the effects on others and he alters his behaviour accordingly.

    (usually, lol!)

    Anyway it’s 3am and I’m suffering revolting indigestion so I hope some of that made some sense at least.

    Happy New Year and thingy-thing too.

  11. Mer,

    What you say about awareness and setting a kid up to fail and all makes sense. However:

    I would even go so far as to guess that children who do have their actions and movements regulated with a heavy hand could become oblivious to their surroundings and any danger, used to only being on the lookout for one kind of danger – the smack. Having all their control coming from an external source, they are tuned in only to the approval or disapproval of an adult, depending on someone else to give them cues for behaviour all the time and lacking any reponsibility for their own actions (just on the lookout for what they can “get away with? within the constraints of their parents’ control).

    That doesn’t ring true with my experience. I think at least some of that is a temperamental thing, which makes sense since, hey, at least some of human behaviour, and possibly a lot more than we like to acknowledge, is inborn. I know that I didn’t tend to be a child who was on the lookout for what he could get away with, though I was strongly attuned to parental disapproval and, yes, that has its own negative effects, especially in very sensitive children like I was, but I’m not sure it makes one less aware of one’s surroundings, or less attuned to that.

    You asked about the adjectives we use … I guess we refrain from passing comment/judgement on Luca’s actions in general. I don’t think it’s our place to judge his actions.

    Interesting. Worth thinking about. I wonder how much difference the wording actually makes, beyond semantics, since the message of “that’s bad” versus “we don’t like that” both seem to convey parental disapproval and implicit demand of changed action. Hmm. But anyway, it’s interestng that you’re teaching ethics based on a kind of others-focused basis, instead of a moral-absolutes-basis, since so often parental versions of moral absolutes seem cooked up on the spot.

    Digest better. Me, I’m off to the hospital for more tests.

  12. How do you quote in here?

    the message of “that’s bad? versus “we don’t like that? both seem to convey parental disapproval and implicit demand of changed action

    I think the wording is important. The thing is, there IS no implicit demand of changed action. We’re just letting him know we weren’t cool with that behaviour, it’s then up to him to decide what to do about it. Different situations will demand different levels of convincing I suppose. Like if we were out somewhere and he was doing something that was really disturbing others, there WOULD be a demand of changed action, we would even go so far as to physically remove ourselves from a situation. Whereas if it is something not so important, we might mention how we feel about it and then if he doesn’t change behaviour we just drop it. Picking the battles so to speak.
    Wheras what my parents would have done is sort of growled “uh-UH!” and said “get your feet off the table, that’s rude”, and there really would have been no choice in the matter if we wanted to avoid a punishment. At the same time we would have been stuck with this label there in the back of our minds “I am rude. I chose to do this therefore I am rude, and I am now removing my feet so I can have dessert, but really I must be a rude person for having done it in the first place”

    Oh god I am now having memories of my elbows resting on the table being flicked by my dad, and being denied dessert because I wouldn’t eat some revolting brussel sprout (that my parents didn’t even eat themselves!) and all kinds of dinner-time threats and coersions. And my parents are really quite nice people!

    I guess the main thing I like to keep in mind is “Would I speak to my peers like that?” I would never call someone good or naughty (unless I was into S&M). If someone in the office was being noisy and disruptive, I wouldn’t say “You’re noisy and a pest!”, I would ask them if they could keep it down, as I was having trouble concentrating, or whatever. After watching you in a concert I probably wouldn’t say “Good man! Good saxophone playing!” That would feel condescending. I would probably say “I loved that” or “That was really enjoyable” or some other comment relating to how I feel rather than sort of “scoring” your performance.

    Oh I wasn’t a child on the lookout for what I could get away with either, but I definitely was aware of pleasing my parents, and a huge part of my behaviour was based upon what would keep them proud of me. Rather than what would make me proud of myself. Which is a shame. So yeah I was most likely paying more attention to being obedient to their wishes than actual dangers or real consequences of dangerous things (for me the consequenses of such things were disapporoval/smack), and because you said you thought a child wasn’t aware of danger til around 7 or 8 I was just thinking out aloud that perhaps that is just children who are raised like this. Who knows?

    Hope you’re healthy.


  13. Mer, you can quote inside comments by writing:

    ... quoted material ...

    I’ll edit your comment so the quote shows.

    You brought back mealtime insanity for me. I think I mentioned punitive cooking to you, right? How it always seemed the the food most hated by whoever’s been really bad lately ended up on the table?

    I don’t blame my parents: my father just never grasped how someone could be so picky about food (his philosophy was, “It all mixes in your stomach, so who cares how mixes it is before you eat it?”), and my mother just never enjoyed cooking, and was also working a lot of the time while also doing a lot of the cooking. (When I was younger, especially.)

    But I do remember my only recourse to not eating things I hated was to put them in my mouth and try until I almost threw up, or to hide them until she wasn’t looking and throw them in the trash when I could. I think it took until middle school before a couple of boiled potatoes would be reserved and not mashed, because it was established by then that mashed potatoes made me uncontrollably sick.

    Funny, though: your parents made you eat brussels sprouts, but didn’t eat them themselves? That strikes me as odd… in my family, at least everyone ate the same things.

    Anyway, it’s interesting. But I’m still not completely convinced that a wording like, “We’re displeased by X,” doesn’t carry an implicit request for changed behaviour… and that when it comes from parents, such requests are actually, again implicitly, demands. You’re a very little person and the two big people you depend on for everything say, “WE don’t like ____.” I’m thinking I’m going to stop ____ing with a quickness.

    And now I’m getting flashbacks of my sisters chanting, “Elbows off the table!” Which was always a blood stupid rule for a smaller person trying to eat at an adult-sized table, anyway.

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