Creative Destruction

April 6, 2007

Frauds Perpetrated on Children

Filed under: Content-lite,Ethics — Brutus @ 2:44 pm

Easter is almost here, and what’s foremost in most of our minds? Chocolate, the Easter Bunny, jelly beans, colored eggs, plastic green grass, brunch, bonnets, and if we have time to get around to it, there’s also this little thing called the Resurrection. For the purposes of this post, I don’t really care about the abandonment of religious meaning underlying many holidays or the coopting of religious holidays by commercial interests. I’m really interested in the dominant icons associated with holidays and fairy tales, especially those that we encourage children to believe up until they’re no longer gullible enough to sustain those beliefs.

Christmas has Santa, Easter has the Easter Bunny, St. Patrick’s Day has leprechauns, and Valentine’s Day has Cupid. Charles Schultz made a run at establishing the Great Pumpkin for Halloween, but it’s unclear just how subversive he was being. Children also believe in the tooth fairy, unicorns, the sandman, and all sorts of talking animals (thanks, Disney!). What connection these characters have with their respective holiday or activities is frequently confused, especially in the mind of a child.

As adults, we’ve mostly left all these beliefs behind (except, um, that one). Yet we perpetrate substantial frauds on children by encouraging them to believe in these magical characters. What we find charming and innocent in a child’s willingness to believe may not be so innocent on inspection, and many parents feel some sadness when their children no longer believe in, for instance, Santa. I remember my own mixed emotions when I “found out” about Santa: there was a sort of elation that I was growing up and thinking more like an adult and resentment that my parent had lied to me for no apparent reason. The clumsy steps we took to hide the truth from our younger siblings was laughable in hindsight, except that it’s also a little tragic. My transition wasn’t traumatic, but I’ve been hearing more and more stories from resentful adults who were confused as children as to why, for example, on Easter, when we ostensibly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we also have some mute, human-sized bunny running around hiding eggs. (And where do the eggs come from? Other bunnies? It really is that confusing to a kid.) The really terrifying story is the fundie kid who comes home after school to an empty house and believes he/she was left behind when the rest of the family was “raptured up” to heaven.

Kids’ imaginations are terrifically fertile ground. In fact, their brainwave patterns up to the age or 8 or 10 (or thereabouts) indicate that they exist in a waking dream state such as adults experience in sleep. That makes them incredibly vulnerable to manipulation. Yet we have these traditions, shifting slightly but mostly deepening over time, where we smile approvingly on children’s adoption of our deceptions. And for whose enjoyment?

17 Comments »

  1. Theirs and ours. You may not recall this – I imagine you spent your childhood poring over Club of Rome doom reports and pestering your mother about the potential ecological collapse that her use of dishwasher detergent could cause – but the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause, and the Tooth Fairy are fun for children. Playing Santa, hiding eggs, and slipping dollar bills under pillows is fun for adults. It’s a form of collaboratively imaginative game playing.

    Try it some time. You’ve only got a few years before the nanobots consume you.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2007 @ 3:19 pm | Reply

  2. G’head, mock me, stab me with my own knife (words) and twist. Maybe the byline for Creative Destruction no longer applied now that it has disappeared.

    In the bulk of cases, I’m sure you’re right that it’s just good, clean fun for the whole family(tm). But when it isn’t, which is difficult to anticipate, well, then, it isn’t. If I hadn’t heard from more and more people who reported being confused or traumatized, it wouldn’t raise any flags with me, either. I rather enjoy the tease of the clucking Cadbury egg bunny. My point in questioning the practice is that isn’t always so simple.

    Comment by Brutus — April 6, 2007 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  3. Three Steps In Child Development:

    1) Life is great.

    2) You stop believing in Santa Claus.

    3) Life is crap.

    And as for the Easter tradition of a bunny hiding eggs… Well, a household with strongly religious parents wouldn’t bother to tell kids that parts of major Christian traditions, as in anything that doesn’t involve Jesus of Nazareth, were taken bodily from European pagan beliefs. The day I hear a kid asking where Mary and Joseph got their Christmas tree is the day I smile quietly to myself.

    We tell these little white lies to children because the truth is far too complicated, even for most adults to understand. So oftentimes, these little white lies are not only for the child’s sake but the adults.

    Comment by Off Colfax — April 6, 2007 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  4. “No Assumption Is Sacred”? Not sure what the relevance is.

    If I hadn’t heard from more and more people who reported being confused or traumatized…

    Yeah, well. Sometimes confusion and trauma are the result of a bad external scenario. Sometimes they’re the result of someone not being very bright, or having an exaggerated sense of the obligation of the world to refrain from bruising their tenderness.

    One suspects that the parents of your traumatized associates are or were people who felt it was their job to shelter their baby from the cruelty of the world, rather than teaching their baby how to deal with cruelty while maintaining a positive outlook. Understandable, but tragic in its outcomes.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2007 @ 5:35 pm | Reply

  5. I have no memory of believing in Santa Claus. I also have no memory of my parents telling me that he didn’t exist. It was always, as far as I remember, a little conspiracy between us in which I told my parents what I wanted from Santa and the “Santa” presents mysteriously showed up on Christmas morning. I knew my parents put them there but I was always impressed by their ability to sneak them in there since I was certain that I didn’t sleep a minute the night of the 24th. The whole rabbits, eggs, resurrection thing at Easter puzzled me until I learned about the old pagan religions whose rites were appropriated.

    Comment by Dianne — April 6, 2007 @ 6:44 pm | Reply

  6. At three, our daughter asked us if Santa Claus was “real in this world”. We said that he was a wonderful story, like her other shows and cartoons that she enjoys so much. She accepted that blithely and has proceeded to ask Santa for presents diligently and with evident enjoyment.

    Santa was integrated into her prayers each night for a while (“and please help me be good so that Santa can bring me presents from his sleigh. Amen.”) but she eventually let that part drop.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2007 @ 6:48 pm | Reply

  7. The really terrifying story is the fundie kid who comes home after school to an empty house and believes he/she was left behind when the rest of the family was “raptured up” to heaven.

    The rapture issue is not really comparable, in my opinion, because most of the people who teach their children about a pre-tribulation premillennial rapture (which is what we are talking about here) actually do believe in it.

    Comment by Glaivester — April 6, 2007 @ 6:49 pm | Reply

  8. One thing worth considering, perhaps, is that in less technological times, there were no Santa Claus TV specials, department store Santas, and the like. It may have been less stressful to believe in the past, since there was much less physical evidence that had to be integrated and accounted for by the more logical of our breed.

    Comment by Robert — April 6, 2007 @ 6:51 pm | Reply

  9. Never lie to a child. Never lie to anyone, of course, but especially, never lie to a child.

    I fought a long and mostly useless war against Santa Claus (a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest) and I refused utterly to buy into the Easter Bunny.

    Never lie to a child.

    Comment by Susan — April 7, 2007 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

  10. The weak version of that, I’ll buy. The strong version makes education impossible, since lies-to-children is pretty much the only way to ease people into understanding of complex topics.

    Comment by Robert — April 8, 2007 @ 2:30 am | Reply

  11. since lies-to-children is pretty much the only way to ease people into understanding of complex topics.

    Correction: it is the only way to ease people into complex societal, medical, and historical topics.

    Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. The War Between The States. The Right To Bear Arms. Cancer. Creation vs. Evolution vs. Intelligent Design (Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Evolutionism, Old Earth Creationism). Just about any war, really. Salem. The Chicago Fire. AIDS. Starvation in Africa. Death.

    Once a child is old enough to figure out the fact from the fiction in the case of Santa Claus, they’re old enough to figure out some of this other stuff. Which is why I will just reiterate my previous comment.

    Three Steps In Child Development:

    1) Life is great.

    2) You stop believing in Santa Claus.

    3) Life is crap.

    Comment by Off Colfax — April 8, 2007 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

  12. Easter baskets make it into my home (from neighborhood interlopers, whose kindness is not encouraged, but not discouraged either). The Easter Bunny hasn’t.

    Comment by ohwilleke — April 9, 2007 @ 11:34 am | Reply

  13. Never lie to a child.

    My parents never lied to me, and I appreciate that.


    1) Life is great.

    2) You stop believing in Santa Claus.

    3) Life is crap.

    4) Then you graduate from high school and things get a heck of a lot better.

    Comment by carlaviii — April 9, 2007 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  14. Never lie to a child. Never lie to anyone, of course, but especially, never lie to a child.

    I fought a long and mostly useless war against Santa Claus (a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest….)

    And what’s the next line? “Lie la lie la lie lie liiiiiie….” Coincidence?

    Three Steps In Child Development:

    1) Life is great.

    2) You stop believing in Santa Claus.

    3) Life is crap.

    And as for the Easter tradition of a bunny hiding eggs… Well, a household with strongly religious parents wouldn’t bother to tell kids that parts of major Christian traditions, as in anything that doesn’t involve Jesus of Nazareth, were taken bodily from European pagan beliefs. The day I hear a kid asking where Mary and Joseph got their Christmas tree is the day I smile quietly to myself.

    I’ve often wondered if the social role of these myths is to train kids to be suspicious of “received wisdom.”

    If I wanted to raise your child to think for herself, should I always be scrupulously honest and refrain from exposing her to propaganda? Or would I expose her to dissembling and propaganda so that she’d be better inoculated against their effects?

    I’m an agnostic that regularly attended church. I’m raising my kids in a similar manner.

    Comment by nobody.really — April 9, 2007 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

  15. I stopped believing in Santa Claus when my mom told he was on a “tight budget” one christmas. I was 7 years old. I pretty much stopped believing in magic right after that.

    Comment by Rose — May 18, 2007 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

  16. Hard to believe Christmas is already around the corner. I am ready for some Thanksgiving turkey though.

    Comment by retro — November 19, 2007 @ 9:55 am | Reply

  17. what a life without fairy tales! a child has to have some kind of imagination in order to survive in an adult world. my child will not have a myspace account, or whatever it morphs into by the time she can consciously count, but she will go hunting for easter eggs and believe in santa and the god within and all other silly stories because mommy’s head is full of lies.

    Comment by greywhitie — November 19, 2007 @ 10:25 am | Reply


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