Can you spot the missing myth?


Today is Easter Sunday, the day when Christians around the world celebrate the anniversary of Jesus returning to life as a rabbit and distributing chocolate eggs to all his followers. From reader Norm, I received link to this article by a geneticist Victoria Metcalf about whether the story of the Easter Bunny is harmful to children.

All around the world many parents are preparing for Easter – possibly thinking of how Easter eggs will be hidden, how they will explain their delivery and perhaps bracing themselves for some challenging questions about the Easter Bunny.

But before parents figuratively dust off the Easter Bunny myth for its annual delivery of fiction presented as fact, is there time to pause, mid-bounce, to examine whether engaging in this deceit may be detrimental to our children?

Many are getting excited about the game they are going to play with their children, but this is a one-sided game where the children don’t know the rules; they’re participating in something that’s presented to them as a fun reality.

She then examines three major myths that pervade western culture and that parents willfully foist on their children (Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny) and wonders about the negative consequences when children are told by their parents later on that what they told them is not true. These are not trivial because children trust their parents and to learn that they were deliberately fed falsehoods can damage that trust.

Metcalf omits one major myth and that is telling children that god is real. But here parents usually believe the myth themselves and so don’t feel the need to disillusion them. But the way things are going with young people in greater numbers discovering the truth by themselves, we have the situation where it is young people who may have to gently break it to their parents that a myth they believe in is not real.

Comments

  1. AnotherAnonymouse says

    I just asked my 18-year-old his thoughts on this. He thought if kids figured out on their own that Santa and teh Easter Bunny aren’t real, then they’ll be okay with it. Just one point of anecdata.

  2. Kevin Kehres says

    I once interviewed a clinical psychologist about Santa Claus. He said there wasn’t any harm done in parents telling little kids Santa was real. Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy — same deal. Kids figure out it’s really the parents on their own, and that’s a sign of an increasing level of maturation. Parents don’t even have to admit that they’re not real — kids figure it out and don’t hold it against the parent. And, in fact, parents demonstrate a certain level of pride when the kids figure it out.

    Some of my fondest childhood memories are of “Santa” leaving a present under our pillows (so mommy and daddy could sleep in an extra 20 minutes without being bothered by three Santa-believing boys). Santa was smart in my household.

    So, worrying about the long-term consequences of lying to kids about such things is coming from an adult’s filter — not a child’s. And the evidence (or lack thereof) suggests there is no harm.

    God — well, I think that’s a different subject. Because parents still believe in the mythical figure and because there are actual punishments associated with lack of belief.

  3. Chiroptera says

    … to examine whether engaging in this deceit may be detrimental to our children?

    Which can be examined by scientists trained to answer such questions through rigorous research.

    Has such research been done? If so, then those studies should be cited.

  4. elly says

    More anecdata:

    We didn’t push the myths about the Easter Bunny, Santa, etc. hard when my kids were little, but we went along with them. To us, it was no different than the fairy tales and children’s stories featuring talking animals, elves and other magical events we regularly read to them (not to mention the stuff they were exposed to via TV/videos/movies). It’s not like we issued disclaimers every time we read “King Bidgood’s In The Bathtub;” or “The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig” to them. Same deal with Santa, et al.

    Eventually, they figured it out for themselves, but the revelation was hardly traumatic for them, particularly since the myths didn’t exist in isolation. At Easter time, for example, we would hand-paint eggs and create a decorative egg tree (based on the book, “The Egg Tree,” by Katherine Milhous). Sometimes we’d make kulich and paskha, too (from another book, “Rechenka’s Eggs”). They hunted for Easter eggs in the backyard; and – of course – enjoyed the “loot” contained in their Easter baskets.

    And that’s just Easter… don’t get me started on the arts/crafts & activities associated with Christmas or Halloween. Point being, the myths were part of an overall atmosphere of creativity/imagination, family togetherness, warmth, fun and – of course – love.

    Far from being “detrimental,” I’d go so far as to say it was beneficial to them. Both of my kids are adults in college now. My son is nearly done with his BA – he’s an aspiring science fiction author and is minoring in web publishing/design. My daughter is working on her AA – she’s a talented fantasy artist who spends her free time hunched over her Intuos Pro.

    In other words, they’re both creatives. And if our “lying” to them had any adverse effects on them, they’re hiding these well – they’re far more mature, honest, productive and responsible than I was in my late teens/early twenties. Certainly, it never kept them from confiding in us, or checking in with us over the truth/falsity of stuff they were learning in school; or exposed to from other media sources and/or friends.

  5. hyphenman says

    Good afternoon Mano,

    I attended a wedding this weekend where a Shaman officiated. He began the service by noting that this weekend was perfect for a wedding because of the Easter holiday, a holiday, he reminded all present, humanity had celebrated for thousands of years.

    There was no discussion afterwards that I overheard, but I had to wonder how many there understood the Pagan origins of the holiday and how Judaism, via Pesach, and later Christianity, had co-opted the much earlier traditions.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  6. Matt G says

    This is something I think about fairly often: if parents really and truly believe in, say, creationism, and they pass this along to their children, can they be said to be lying? They are stating a falsehood, but one they honestly believe to be true. If it isn’t lying, then what is it?

  7. lou Jost says

    I think learning these myths as fact from their parents actually trains kids not to trust authority (since every kid eventually figures out the truth) and that is a GOOD thing.

  8. elly says

    This is something I think about fairly often: if parents really and truly believe in, say, creationism, and they pass this along to their children, can they be said to be lying? They are stating a falsehood, but one they honestly believe to be true. If it isn’t lying, then what is it?

    But it is lying, IMHO. While parents may claim that they truly believe in creationism, the level of coercion involved in transmitting their beliefs gives the game away. If you have to isolate children from other ideas, and compel them to believe on pain of punishment (both immediate and eternal), then it’s a tacit admission that you don’t think your beliefs will stand up to examination.

  9. AnotherAnonymouse says

    To build on what Elly said; when my child decided Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny et al weren’t real, my spouse and I admitted the truth and for a couple more years, we all pretended, because the child thought it was a fun pretense. At 18, my child is also in college and creative, though not as gifted as Elly’s are.

  10. lanir says

    Any good study on this would have a lot of external influences to account for. To do that well I think the study would have to be pretty large to get significant data on this particular topic. An example of something that would skew the results is my parents weren’t tremendously into the Easter bunny or Santa or the tooth fairy either but they did go along with it. However we had other trust issues and that’s ultimately what this is about.

    So I think you would have to deliberately filter out things like corporal punishment and other harsh parenting techniques (demanding certain performance in a sport, school subject[s], or extra-curricular activity, etc.) to see what effect those have on trust as well. I’m not suggesting a study like that couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. I think it would be a great subject for research! But while this may be pessimistic, I suspect it would be an awful lot easier to find funding for a study on whether children like candy or how much they’re willing to do chores in exchange for a certain brand of candy.

  11. Nick Gotts says

    I’ve no idea whether telling such myths as Santa to children as true is harmful or not. But I do think you need a very good reason for lying to your children, if it is to be ethically justifiable.

  12. Mano Singham says

    @#6,

    I think the word lying denotes deliberate intent to deceive. So I don’t think the creationists are lying. But their children might accuse them of deceiving them when they find out the truth.

  13. John Horstman says

    Hmm, whether lying to children is harmful sort of depends on one’s definition of “harm”, no? Like, if one thinks lying is intrinsically harmful, then that’s that. Alternately, one might say that learning that one’s parents can’t actually be trusted to tell the truth is helpful, not harmful, because if one’s parents really are the sort of people who will lie to their children, then the child knowing that is useful. On the other hand, might it not still be preferable to have parents simply not lie to children at all? I have a feeling any attempts to study this are going to run into problems finding a comparison group of any size, as almost no parents tell their children the truth about everything all the time.

    Contrary to the thought that the shift to viewing fantasy figures as violating causal principles may be responsible for children’s ability to discern the fictional nature of such characters, this study did not find that relationship. In other words, there is no sudden insight that such figures cannot be real.

    So the people saying it helps kids learn skepticism are wrong. Magical claims made to young children may simply teach them that magic is real. And the other mentioned study found that being lied to normalizes lying for children, making them more likely to lie and cheat, though it was testing strangers and not parents.

    I am continually disturbed by the utter disregard many parents exhibit for the agency and humanity of their children. From pointlessly dictating aspects of self-presentation like manner of dress or hair style to interfering in friendships to forcing children to engage in activities they detest (I’m talking things like piano lessons or ballet, not things with direct health consequences like brushing teeth) to frequently lying to ritual genital cutting, the very people who are supposed to be protecting and nurturing children more than any others – their parents – often treat them worse than they would treat even casual acquaintances, let alone people they supposedly love. There’s a reason “paternalistic” is widely considered a pejorative in social justice circles, yet somehow most of the same people who use it thus fail to make the connection to the problems with literal paternalism.

  14. Stacy says

    Contrary to the thought that the shift to viewing fantasy figures as violating causal principles may be responsible for children’s ability to discern the fictional nature of such characters, this study did not find that relationship. In other words, there is no sudden insight that such figures cannot be real.

    And yet the “violation of causal principles” was precisely what caused me to stop believing in Santa Claus. How did he get down chimneys? And how did he get into our Southern California tract house–we didn’t even have a chimney? And, flying reindeer? Really?

    It didn’t happen suddenly. I had doubts for some time and considered the question seriously. I remember when I went to my mother and she confirmed my conclusion–that Santa was just a story, and not real–I felt pleased with myself for figuring it out.

  15. astrosmash says

    Also, Santa pretty much ‘doesn’t exist’ in a child’s mind significantly before Thanks giving. As a kid, you MAY have given the Easter Bunny a thought Saturday night before Easter Sunday…But prolly not… And the tooth fairy? Barely passes as the mildest consideration. Plus, the transaction is purely an exchange of goods for cash.
    Plus, none of the above three use threats as leverage

  16. songbird says

    Lying is saying something that is not true with an intent to deceive. Sarcasm is not lying, and neither is simply being wrong.

    Parents discuss Santa Claus every year, and there are endless discussions on the Internet about whether perpetuating the Santa myth is lying to your children. In the end it’s child specific. Look at the actual child in front of you and decide if they are going to feel like they had participated in a fun game, or if they will feel deceived. The majority of children feel like the whole thing was fun and it didn’t damage them in any way. Some few really hold it against their parents. But parents typically know ahead of time which kind of kid they have. So look at your child, figure it out and act accordingly.

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