A man dressed as Santa Claus rides his sleigh near the Santa Claus Village located on the Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi, Finland, on Thursday. (Reuters) (Attila Cser/Reuters)
Reporter

Kelsey Johnson is a mother, astrophysicist and professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. She says she is “distraught” about the sorry state of science literacy in this country and believes that it is undermining American democracy and society.

And for Johnson, that’s where Santa Claus comes in.

In this post, she argues that promoting a belief in Santa has long-term detrimental effects on our children and society as a whole, and she calls for parents to flip the narrative into an exercise in critical thinking.

Johnson is on the board of the American Astronomical Society, on which she chairs the Ethics Task Force; is a board member of the federally mandated Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee, which reports to Congress; and is vice president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

She is also director of Dark Skies, Bright Kids, a nonprofit program that is designed to enhance science education among elementary school students by helping them explore the universe in a fun, hands-on social setting. And she is a 2018 Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, an effort to promote new voices in the public square.

By Kelsey Johnson

Santa is a recurring source of discord for my kids, who suffer from the “we have two scientists as parents” syndrome.

When my oldest daughter was in first grade, she got into a fight with one of her classmates about the existence of Santa. To resolve this critical issue, they went to the local authority — the classroom teacher.

To be clear, this puts the teacher in a tight spot, but imagine for a moment the various ways in which the teacher could respond. My favorite for its pure simplicity and easy deflection, if not for its factual accuracy is, “That is something you should ask your parents.”

The teacher’s actual response was to tell the girls that Santa is, in fact, real. After which my daughter was both embarrassed and virtuously angry.

At first blush, this may seem like a small thing, but it brought on a mental crisis for my daughter. To her 6-year-old mind, a teacher was an ultimate authority on knowledge. This single interaction undermined the trust she had in her teacher for the remainder of that school year. This is a big deal for a 6-year-old.

A similar cycle repeated itself with my youngest daughter when she was 5. Holiday time, holiday crafts and holiday debates with classmates. In this case, the teacher took my daughter aside and told her not to tell the other kids and to pretend she thought Santa was real.

You could probably rightfully assert that I’m a killjoy, but think for a moment about what it says: Our society is okay with teachers and parents propagating a belief in something they know to be false — and perhaps more important, shutting off the critical thinking process in kids before it has even started. Not to mention the idea that a creepy old guy is watching them when they sleep and every move they make. Don’t even get me started with the Elf on the Shelf.

The common refrain goes along the lines of: “But we want our kids to feel the magic of Christmastime.” Let’s just take a step back and unpack the word “magic.” In this case, “magic” is code for “things that we know not to be true, and that defy any attempt at critical thinking or understanding the laws of nature, but nevertheless we want our kids to believe.” And if our kids accept this false and ridiculous concept, they are rewarded with presents.

There are proponents of the Santa myth who claim that lying to our children about Santa helps their critical thinking skills, because the kids eventually have to figure it out. I just don’t buy it.

Training people to do exactly the opposite of what we want them to do is not an effective pedagogical strategy. Moreover, research tells us that when authoritative adults (e.g. parents, teachers, etc.) make pronouncements to children, the children’s critical thinking skills decline afterward. For example, children raised in religious households are less able to distinguish fantasy from reality.

Other pro-Santa arguments contend that promoting the Santa myth as reality nurtures children’s imagination. To be clear, imagination and pretend play have clear cognitive benefits, but are we so unimaginative that we can’t find ways to foster our children’s imagination without lying to them and circumventing critical thinking? In fact, studies have shown that children who better differentiate between reality and fantasy also have better imaginations.

Is it any wonder that after we condition our children in their formative years to discount logic and evidence that so many grow up to be adults who discount firmly grounded scientific results? For example, one third of millennials in the United States are not sure the Earth is round, and more than half of young adults in the United States think astrology is a science. These are young adults in the middle of making important life decisions.

As our kids go out and interact with the world, critical thinking skills are essential to making good (or at least not bad) decisions. Should they chat with a stranger on the Internet? Is it impossible to get pregnant the first time you have sex? Is it true that smoking is considered bad because of a conspiracy?

If you really want to nurture critical thinking and imagination in children, there are better ways than lying to them about Santa. For example, maybe this year is a good time to have your children come up with a test to determine whether Santa is real. I would bet you’ll see some clever experiments. You can even take it a step further, and reward them for trying to determine the truth instead of believing a lie.

In the age of “alternative facts,” we should all be worried about what sources of information we trust and why. Should you vaccinate your children? Is chocolate good for you or bad for you? Does that really expensive anti-aging cream actually work? Does that weight loss supplement pose a risk to your health? How do you know? Whom do you trust?

Critical thinking is the foundation for enabling us to work through issues and questions we encounter both individually and as a society. By hobbling our children’s critical thinking over and over through Santa-infused holidays, an oversized bunny that gives chocolate and eggs, and a fairy that has a fetish for baby teeth, we are actually inflicting long-term damage to them and to society.