Thursday, 24 November 2016

Fibbing about Father Christmas

Today has been a day of BBC radio interviews asking my reaction to an article in a couple of the national newspapers about the long-term damage to children being ‘lied’ to about the existence of Father Christmas.

The authors of a piece in The Lancet (Prof Christopher Boyle from the University of Exeter and Dr Kathy McKay from the University of New England in Australia) claim that lying about Father Christmas and the subsequent discovery by the child of the lie destroys the trust between parent and child.

Whoa!  That’s quite a claim if I do say so myself.

As a psychotherapist, I have heard a lot of stories about the traumas of Christmas, but never in my career have I heard anyone talk about how damaged they felt at being lied to about Father Christmas.

The authors claim that when children find out their parents have lied about Father Christmas then the bond of trust is broken because, what else have they been lied to about.  Granted, the authors say their theory isn’t based on observation but is theoretical so there isn’t actually a body of research to back up the claim.

It’s still worth unpicking to see if there is any merit in the argument.

Is fibbing about Father Christmas really worse than fibbing about the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny or any other fantasy characters children embrace when they are young?  

When you think about it, parents lie to their children all the time, often for their own (the child’s) well-being:  “Can I watch another film?  Please, please, please?  “Oh, it looks like the video isn’t working any more; let’s read a bedtime story instead.”  And so on.  We sprinkle our communication with lies for convenience, protection, expediency - any number of reasons – and children do survive these lies unscathed.

Let’s get serious for a moment.  There are far more damaging behaviours that parents do to create long-term harm to their children including physical, sexual or emotional abuse; consistently not keeping their word; malicious lying.  If we’re concerned about the breakdown of trust that’s where our attention should be.

Personally, I’m not keen on parents using Father Christmas as a threat (“he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake”), but it seems very reasonable to join children in their pretend world till it isn’t pretend anymore.

Children thrive on fantasy, on make believe, on using their imaginations to create their unique worlds and often long after they have learned the ‘truth’ about Santa Claus, they enjoy perpetuating the myth for the next lot coming up.

In just about every interview I had today, I was asked what parents should say if their children ask if Father Christmas is real.  The answer was the same, ask the child what he or she thinks; ask what they like about Father Christmas and what makes them think he isn’t real.

Create a dialogue with your child rather than making it a question and answer session because dialogue helps them work things out for themselves in a way that works for their reality, not necessarily yours.

This whole notion has felt like a tempest in a tea-pot and I for one will continue to support whatever myths the little ones around me have till they don’t believe them any more and they’re on to something else. 

By Jo Ellen Gryzb, Director of Impact Factory

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