Saturday, December 13, 2008

Encouraging Children to Believe Falsehoods

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, Image via WikipediaWhen an atheist argues that it is abusive for a parent to indoctrinate his or her children into a particular religious tradition, the atheist is basing this claim on the notion that religion is false. But the parent who is practicing such indoctrination does not see it this way. Such a parent believes in the truth of what they are teaching. Thus, while we can argue about whether the outcome of such teaching is abusive, it is difficult to claim that such a parent has any abusive intent whatsoever. Even if we consider religious instruction a form of abuse, we must recognize that it is a less serious form of abuse due to the absence of malice.

How would this scenario change if the parent in question taught the child to believe something that the parent recognized as false? This seems like it would necessarily be a more serious form of abuse because the parent would be knowingly lying to his or her child.

What sort of parent would intentionally persuade his or her child to believe things recognized by the parent as false? Santa Claus ring any bells? In teaching the Santa Claus myth, parents all over America are deliberately encouraging their children to believe something which they themselves fully recognize as false.

It seems like a real stretch to call this abusive in any meaningful way. To even have such a discussion, we would want to consider the parent's motive. Encouraging children to believe in Santa is supposed to be fun. It isn't like parents are trying to harm their children with such a practice, right? And yet, what does it say about a parent that he or she would knowingly lie to a child simply for entertainment purposes (i.e., because it is fun)? What does it say about the rest of us that we maintain the lie around children from other families simply because we find it cute?

Maybe the Santa myth is truly harmless. And yet, I can't help wondering how serious we can be about promoting education when we promote untruths simply for our own entertainment. If our education system was not in such dire straights, this would be little more than an interesting philosophical discussion. Sadly, the dismal state of Mississippi's system of public education does not allow us such a luxury.

It is not my point here to condemn families or other institutions who promote the Santa Claus myth. In fact, I think it could be used as a potent lesson for teaching children about similar myths. Rather, I encourage us to recognize that we use Santa for our own entertainment and possibly at the expense of our children. By teaching falsehoods, we undermine our own credibility and may inoculate against the sort of critical thinking we hope to inspire via education.