Well, Virginia, It’s…Complicated: Child Liberation And The Santa Claus Story
Child Liberation, the Santa Claus Story, and How to
Start Making a Better World this Holiday Season
“Love, as happens all too often in our culture, is thus conceptually poisoned by being seen as a transactional exchange between subjects separated by a massive status and power differential, and the “lesser” party is coerced into the relationship because she cannot get what she needs without it. What becomes of love when, as a culture, we teach each other from a young age that it has to do with acquiescing to authority, being watched over by a hidden and omnipresent power, submitting to constant judgment and evaluation by someone who demands that we follow their rules and be “good,” and, on top of it all, being solely responsible for the well-being of this Other as the one who must keep the magic alive in the relationship? What will any sort of love look like if this is our model?”
– H. Peter Steeves, PhD
Intentions Are A Complicated Business
In general, everyone knows that lying is wrong. Most of us, nonetheless, lie multiple times a day—sometimes out of selfishness, sometimes out of thinking that it is, in the moment, the right thing to do for another person (“No, I had a great time Zooming with you and your cats for two hours last night”). The little-white-lie that saves a friend’s feelings seems better than the cold, hard truth. The much-larger-red-and-green-lie that allows so many children the experience of a real Santa Claus at this time of year seems like an act of love. And yet, what does it mean when a culture constructs an elaborate lie, even with the best of intentions, and seeks to force one particular group within that culture to believe in it?
The problem, of course, is not that Santa is a fiction. Art is not a lie. We don’t get mad at a Cézanne painting because we can’t eat the apples (there are so many reasons to love Cézanne!), and we shouldn’t be upset at Gal Gadot because she’s not really an Amazonian warrior. Art, in fact, might be one of the most important ways we have of “speaking” truth. But no one is trying to convince children that the Grinch could actually break into their home some night or that we should be trying to find Charlie Brown in order to help him out of the depression brought on by his pitiful tree and apparent seasonal affective disorder. Santa is different. Santa is a fiction we seem intent on getting children to believe is nonfiction.
It will seem obvious to most that we maintain the Kris Kringle lie for all of the right reasons, but intentions are complicated business. It’s not easy to know why we are acting the way that we act, and there are always unspoken assumptions founding the worldview that gives rise to our intentions. Looking at the larger political and philosophical issues, then, is a good way to start thinking about our traditions, actions, and objectives. Surely, when it comes to groups in our society that have historically been mistreated and denied their rights and full moral standing, we have a special obligation to attend to our treatment of them. And children form such a group. We do not extend the full rights of a subject to children. A parent can, without repercussion, physically harm a child (e.g., spanking or punishing “within reason”), imprison a child (e.g., grounding a teenager or telling a six-year-old, “Go to your room!”), take away a child’s property, disregard a child’s request for privacy, force a child to eat this or that, regulate a child’s sleeping and waking schedule, and essentially control every aspect of a child’s life. Children have their entire lives ordered and controlled for them, with little freedom to make decisions about anything truly important. They cannot spend their time as they see fit, cannot decide where they wish to live (and with whom), have virtually no say in important family decisions, and have little to no meaningful access to money—which, in a capitalist society, means that they are disempowered in many other deep ways.
We do not treat children as persons but rather as persons-to-come. The dark side of this story necessarily comes along with the “happy” side that claims we want to give children joy and wonder in their lives by maintaining the truth of the Santa Claus story. It’s a package deal of control. And one assumption driving it all is that children are innocent.
Innocence And Patriarchal Oppression
Innocence has always been a dangerous notion. We give children protection and prize them for their assumed innocence. But the concept itself actually does more harm than good. “Innocence,” which mostly comes to us from the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, is a concept that has also been used to oppress women. For the longest time—and it’s hard to argue against it still being the case—the patriarchy characterized women as innocent and thus needing protection and guidance from men. Women were not knowledgeable of the world, couldn’t understand complicated things, didn’t possess fully-developed rational minds, were “under-developed,” needed watching over, were too ruled by their whims and emotions, and couldn’t handle having full rights or participating in the political and moral life of the community. Replace the word “women” in that last sentence with “children” and we can see that the argument is basically the same these days concerning kids. The patriarchy stays in power in part by characterizing those over whom it has power as undeserving of moral consideration. And “innocence” is a word that does a lot of work for the patriarchy. It seems caring, thoughtful, and generous, but it is actually putting down those to whom the attribution is attached. It is simply a means of oppression.
We could take any one of these forms of oppression and imagine the response. “If we let children eat whatever they wanted they would only eat candy!” But, in all seriousness, are most adults in our society making healthy food choices? And do we really think children are so stupid? They want candy now because it is partially forbidden. If free to make their own decisions, it’s hard to imagine their bodies telling them that a 24/7 candy diet is the way to go. “If we let children decide whether or not they go to school, our schools would be empty!” And maybe they should be; maybe as an institution, schools are not really creating wisdom or doing much that is beneficial for our kids. And do we really think—are we really still so racist to believe—that Native children, for instance, were stupid before we forcibly sent them to white boarding schools? “If we let children stay up as late as they want, they would never go to bed!” A completely untrue statement, of course, because all we really mean by this is that we conveniently want children to fit our schedule (which is a schedule that capitalism demands of us in its creation of “the work-day”). Etc., etc., etc.
I think of Janusz Korczak (1879-1942) here, a child advocate, educator, and author who died in the Nazi’s Treblinka extermination camp because he refused multiple chances to escape when he was given them, not willing to leave behind the many orphans under his care. In The Child’s Right to Respect (1929), Korczak wrote:
“A beggar can dispose of his alms at will. A child has nothing of his own and must account for every object freely received for his own use. He is forbidden to tear, break, or soil; he is forbidden to give anything away as a present; nor is he allowed to refuse anything with a sign of displeasure. The child has to accept things and be satisfied. Everything must be in the right place at the right time according to his regimen. (Maybe this is the reason why the child values the worthless little things which arouse in adults a surprised compassion: odds and ends, junk—his sole personal wealth—a ball of string, a little box, some beads.) In return the child is supposed to submit and behave—let him beg, even cheat, as long as he does not demand. Nothing is due him; we give of our own free will. (A painful analogy presents itself: a rich man’s mistress.) This relationship between adults and children is demoralized by the child’s poverty and material dependency…. Since he has no vote, why go to the trouble to gain his good opinion of you? He doesn’t threaten, demand, say anything. Weak, little, poor, dependent—a citizen-to-be only. The brat. Only a child, a future person, but not yet, not today. He’s just going to be.”
Conscious Parenting Is Not Perimissive Parenting, Which Is Unethical
Part of what it means to treat children ethically is to care for them, but not to care for them in an hierarchical, violent, and patriarchal way. This is not an argument for a Libertarian, hands-off, radical-individual-choice sort of ethic (which is actually deeply unethical) where adults just let kids do whatever they want and sit back passively. Instead, it’s a reminder that what it means to live together in real community is to care for each other’s good, remembering that our goods—just like our selves—are always intersubjective, entwined, enmeshed, and co-constituted. It’s a reminder that we can’t trust, and shouldn’t allow, institutions to provide our community members with the most important things they need to be true, functioning, fulfilled people, but instead must take responsibility for each other. Unschooling takes some work, for instance. It’s not just a lack of school. It’s helping a child learn when and where it is appropriate. Indeed, all of this ethical care takes focused attention and work—but in the right culture, with the right ethos, this won’t be “work” in the traditional sense. We adults are already throwing our lives away by working, spending the majority of our living hours striving for a “career” or doing a “job” someone else wants us to do because we are afraid that we won’t have food, shelter, or healthcare without it. Jobs, and the work they entail, are immoral—but that doesn’t mean we would ideally be idle. Instead, the sort of “work” it requires in order to take responsibility for each other is just the sort of attention we naturally want to give to those with whom we share a life.
If my uncle is consistently making poor behavior choices that threaten his well-being, I will talk to him about this. If a neighbor is up all night pounding on his drum kit, I will speak to him about a way we can try to live together. If you are drinking and this is messing with your life and your ability to love and be loved, I will take the time and effort to talk with you and try to help you so that you don’t have to live like this. I hope everyone will do the same for me. Why can’t these “rules” just be rules in general for how we treat each other, rules where the age of the person involved doesn’t matter? It might be possible to coerce my uncle to act only in a way that I find acceptable, to turn off the lights on my neighbor upstairs and use threats and force to make sure he sleeps when I want him to, and to outlaw (through intimidation and fear of punishment) drinking in general to make sure you don’t become an addict. It might be possible, but few would argue it is just. Yet this is exactly what we do to children. Is there anything inherently morally relevant to the age of the person involved here? I don’t see it. These are just general questions of how best to live with and care for each other in general.
And this is all a roundabout way of saying that we typically overlook children when it comes to our moral responsibilities and their moral status; and when we don’t completely overlook them, we tend to treat them even worse by thinking that it is our job to be their masters (and protect their “innocence”).
Magical Santa Versus Capitalistic Santa: And That Creepy Elf-on-the-Shelf’s True Purpose
Of course, there are far worse sins than lying to a child about Santa Claus. But when this is one puzzle piece in a culture that regularly oppresses children, we need to worry more about that one piece. Pretend time, fiction, story-telling—art!—are key aspects of culture that we should nourish and promote. Having a bit of mystery and magic in life isn’t a bad thing, if we do it the right way. My own early background is in physics, and my current research interests even within philosophy are questions that bring cosmology, physics, and philosophy together. Science is an important engine of inquiry, and I have little time for Flying Spaghetti Monsters. But it is all far more complicated than that: flying reindeer are more complicated than that. Art lives in that wonderful liminal space where the fiction-nonfiction divide is not so important. As I have argued in my last few books, art is not merely one aspect of life (i.e., our aesthetic appreciation doesn’t just “activate” when we walk into a museum or watch a film) but rather it permeates our existence: living is a form of art. So the idea of a story of a magical creature that makes the world a better place is not inherently a bad idea. The problem ends up in the application of that idea.
Santa gets constructed by capitalism and corporations (we have the Coca-Cola company to thank, in large part, for our concept of Santa Claus today). Santa becomes generic and homogenized as a story—globalism wipes out local traditions/narratives, and families and communities aren’t called on to be creative themselves. (Consider the Kansas couple from a few years ago who created elaborate scenes in their house using plastic toy dinosaurs, telling their children that the dinosaurs came to life overnight and got into mischief. That’s how you do make-believe!) Santa becomes merely a shill for consumerism, merely a watered-down version of a Christian Theos (almost-omnipresent, almost-omniscient, almost-all-powerful), merely a projection of the parent’s Super Ego meant to keep their kids in line. And that’s not exactly the spirit of Christmas. St. Nick, we imagine, would not be pleased.
No doubt it is obvious by now what the moral status of “The Elf on the Shelf” is. When parents turn Christmastime into yet another way to maintain authoritarian control over their charges, we have taken a horrible turn. The Elf on the Shelf is basically another version of Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) panopticon. The panopticon was a building in which to house prisoners where a central guard-tower looked out at a circular ring of prison cells (often with glass walls). The prisoners couldn’t necessarily tell when they were being watched, but they were always in a position of possibly-being-watched. There was no place where the prisoners could hide. There was no place to be that was not under the potential direct gaze of the jailer. In the end, the inmates internalized this power-relation. They constructed their own identities as “those-who-are-always-watched” and thus internalized the values of those who watched them. They guarded themselves.
Bentham is clear that this is about controlling other bodies in a somewhat pernicious manner—about forcing them to “behave” by messing with their minds. Michel Foucault discusses the panopticon as well in Discipline and Punish (1975), arguing that factories, schools, armies, and other modern institutions also use the consciousness of “permanent visibility” in order to control, keeping those in power in charge without having to make it look like they are in charge. How is the Elf any different? It is the Panopticon on the Shelf dressed in elvish clothing. It is even worse in some ways in that each family is said to “adopt” its own individual Elf (making it a more-powerful quasi-sibling to the child?) and that this Elf who hides on the Shelf, constantly peeping at the child and filing a report back at the North Pole each night while the child sleeps, only gets its “magic” by being loved by the child.
Love, as happens all too often in our culture, is thus conceptually poisoned by being seen as a transactional exchange between subjects separated by a massive status and power differential, and the “lesser” party is coerced into the relationship because she cannot get what she needs without it. What becomes of love when, as a culture, we teach each other from a young age that it has to do with acquiescing to authority, being watched over by a hidden and omnipresent power, submitting to constant judgment and evaluation by someone who demands that we follow their rules and be “good,” and, on top of it all, being solely responsible for the well-being of this Other as the one who must keep the magic alive in the relationship? What will any sort of love look like if this is our model?
Civilizing Children Is Not Love: We Need A Better Adult World Based On Love, Not Fantasy
Even without the Elf per se, parents have been using Santa as a virtual panopticon for decades: “You had better be good at all times because Santa can see you all of the time, and he has spies everywhere, and he knows if you are bad or good—and if you’re bad you end up on a list. Then you get nothing for Christmas!” The result is that the child self-polices, internalizes the reward/punishment system of his or her master, and doesn’t easily see how horrible it all actually is. In fact, the parents get to play the Good Cop to the Santa/Elf Bad Cop, pretending they are helping children and “on their side”—something doubly-ethically troubling since they are actually the puppet masters behind Santa and the Elf.
There are no bars on the child’s windows, moats in the front yard, or armed sentries standing watch in each room within the house. But that is precisely the point of the panopticon—the systems of power are invisible because the ruling class has made the oppressed internalize those systems. The child, worried that she won’t get the present she wants (and knowing full well that she does not have the money or power to get that thing on her own), adopts the parents’ rules of behavior without question. If children rebel from time to time or try to sneak in their own desires, can we really blame them? The rules of behavior should always be open for discussion and amendment. But civilization in general seldom allows for such moments. Civilization gives us capitalism, empire, liberal representative democracy, white privilege, patriarchy, war, death, and oppression—and it always does so telling us to smile, stand up straight, and be sure to say please and thank you to those dishing it out. Parents, in the end, try to “civilize” their children. We are all harmed as a result. And love—in its true and most-brilliant, most-needed form—is nowhere to be seen.
It’s a depressing thought. Maybe the simplest way to say it is this: perhaps we might think that it’s good to keep telling children about Santa Claus because they will find out the truth soon enough—the truth of an adult world that has little magic, no real love, lots of violence and hatred, and hardly any opportunity to do something deeply nice for each other. I get that. I get the desire to keep them in the dark and construct a fantasy world to replace the real one. But perhaps what we should be focusing on instead is trying to create a better “adult world” so that it’s not something we have to spend so much time and effort trying to hide from children. A better world, that is, for us all.
Asking The Real Ethical Questions This Holiday
This is heavy, I know, for a happy holiday. But these are important questions. And Christmas is full of them. The artificial Christmas tree versus a living Christmas tree debate we sometimes hear about among environmentalists at this time of year always reminds me of the debate a few decades ago about traditional diapers versus disposable diapers (the former used so much energy and hot water to get them clean and sanitary, but the latter sit in landfills—so both seem horrible; now: which is better?!). But, of course, we never get to ask the real ethical question about how we are living, reproducing, and rearing kids in general. And then there’s the worry about buying locally produced toys from a locally-owned store versus doing all our shopping through Amazon. But, of course, we never get to ask the real ethical question about the ways in which capitalism itself is responsible for so many of our social ills, regardless of scale.
And then there’s the worry about buying gifts made in the USA rather than China. But, of course, we never get to ask the real ethical question about what things the Maoist revolution might have got almost-right, and how complicated the state of global finance capital truly is. And then there’s the question of whether we stay at home and shop on Cyber Monday with our iPad in hand or go to Walmart on Black Friday with our car keys in eye-gouging-fist-mode just in case someone else reaches for the very last PAW Patroller with a Working Elevator to Take the Pup Vehicles up to Ryder’s Command Center. But, of course, we never get to ask the real ethical question about the violence we are promoting and enacting in everyday life just by being “normal”— normal in a culture that has normalized psychotic behavior.
So it’s not about being a Debbie Downer. It’s about realizing that we actually have the power to make real decisions in our lives that are ethical. Celebrating more light in the world and the ideals of peace and justice is a wonderful thing. And even Baby Jesus received presents, so it’s not to say that there’s something inherently wrong with giving each other surprises and presents. It’s just that a destructive culture can take a great idea, run it through the mega-machine of its social-death-processor, and turn it into a nightmare. We’ve got one great “Nightmare Before Christmas.” We don’t need more real-life ones. Those in power will warn us not to talk like this and will even tell us it is impossible to change the system. But the system needs to be torn down; we actually can do it. And part of our charge is this: it is time to tell children the truth—and then work together to make a world for all of us, a world where we are all truly and lovingly committed to our mutual flourishing, a world in which the truth isn’t depressing at all but instead shines like a solstice star in the sky, pointing to something wonderful.