The Santa Fallacy

by Anitra Pavlico

As I sit here marveling at the inexorability of deadlines, even in the midst of holiday cheer, I consider that I should, in the absence of time for research ventures, write about “what I know.” Isn’t that the default advice for people who don’t know what to write about and don’t want to come across as false? Well, I spend at least half of my time, and most of my psychic energy, on tasks stemming from being a mother. But do I “know” anything about it? For example, how do you get your child to become a good person, and by that I don’t mean compliant or obedient, but ethical? I spend a lot of time fretting about it, but I don’t know if I have any answers.

There are different schools of thought. One uses promises of gifts or other rewards. My husband’s friend has recommended Oreos as a relatively inexpensive behavior modification device. A variant of this philosophy cajoles children into thinking that whenever they act rightly, some outside entity, beyond the family unit, will reward them. Santa Claus is an outcropping of this parenting-out-of-desperation. One problem with this is that, as they grow older, young people soon realize that there is no one who necessarily rewards them when they act in a moral or ethical manner. Who’s to say whether children who became addicted to rewards following right actions might abandon the high road when the rewards stop coming?

Another school of thought relies on the threat of force or other recrimination. Sadly, these methods have waned, but haven’t completely gone out of style. Do this, or I will do that. Don’t do this, or I will take away that. Yet even children are aware that bad behavior is not always punished. After all, if you do something wrong while the strict teacher’s back is turned, there may be no repercussions at all. Instead of a sense of guilt, there is exhilaration at escaping a harrowing punishment. It is hard to see where the learning takes place.

I recently became aware that my son was under the impression that he only has to be good in the weeks of December leading up to Christmas for purposes of scoring a haul from Santa. I informed him (tongue-in-cheek) that many children make the mistake of thinking their actions on the day after Christmas aren’t noted by Santa and his elves; he is to be judged by the sum total of his deeds, year-round. Meanwhile, my husband and I haven’t dwelled on the notion of his being good as a necessary antecedent to receiving gifts. Sometimes my son’s good, sometimes he’s not. Nothing we say or do seems to make a huge difference. More than anything else, his stomach rules his ethical center. Is he hungry? Dehydrated? In a post-sugar crash? Then he will be a miscreant.

It is not so easy to teach a child how to live an ethical life when you yourself don’t know. In recent years I’ve turned to various ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, for guidance on how to live. The ancient Stoics had their share of difficulties in explaining these concepts to adults, so I don’t feel too bad for not yet having figured out the best way to educate my child. For the Stoics, virtue is its own reward. Marcus Aurelius writes, “Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing, or your feet for walking.” (Now don’t you feel silly for wanting a prize for doing the right thing? You’re only doing what you were born to do.) He continues: “By doing what they were designed to do, they’re performing their function. Whereas humans were made to help others. And when we do help others–or help them to do something–we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.” One obvious obstacle to teaching a child this Stoic approach is a child’s natural instinct for self-preservation, indeed for selfishness. I occasionally have to remind my son that other people are just as important as he is, with very similar hopes and anxieties to his. 

I employ something like a cost-benefit analysis to sell the idea to my son of helping others. It likely costs him less effort than the benefit it brings to the other person. Somehow, I would like to convince him that it makes sense to do the right thing–more than that, it makes no sense to do the wrong thing. It is irrational and foolish. Seneca writes, “Praise in [a man] what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s. You ask what that is? It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit. For man is a rational animal. Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born.”

Michel de Montaigne, who drew heavily from ancient teachings, may have had the right idea when he wrote in his essay “On the Education of Children” that the ideal tutor, instead of “bawl[ing] into a pupil’s ears as if one were pouring water into a funnel,” “should make his pupil taste things, select them, and distinguish them by his own powers of perception. . . . I would not have him start everything and do all the talking, but give his pupil a turn and listen to him. Socrates, and after him Arcesilaus, made his pupils speak first and then spoke to them.” This would apply to any area of study, even ethics. Why drill it into children’s heads that they “have to” do this or that? Why not start a dialogue about why or whether it is better to act one way than another way?

I have noticed that one thing gives my son pause: considering how he would feel if someone else did the thing he’s considering doing to them, to him. The golden rule never gets old. Another thing that may work–I don’t want to say it has worked for sure, because my son likes to act as if he has made his decisions freely and independently–is when I say calmly to him that I’m very disappointed in him, and that I thought he would know better. That makes him embarrassed, and it makes it seem as though the only sensible, intelligent action is the ethical action.

I acknowledge it may be manipulative of me to indoctrinate my son to think that acting in a moral, ethical way is the intelligent way to be. I will just have to try to live with myself. On some level, I think it is his best chance at happiness, and my best chance at sleeping well at night. When it comes down to it, though, parenting reminds me of Socrates’ speech in The Apology: I know nothing, and I don’t think that I know anything. Now where are those Oreos?