The Ethics of Everyday Life

By Kara Martin

As we put the final touches on this past year’s holiday season, long after the tree Christmas tree has been moved to the curb and the decorations have been packed away for their 10-month hibernation and the bills are the only remnants of the fun that was had, it seems like a good time to talk about the ethics of the season!

The holiday season inspires feelings of generosity, kindness, love, and family, as well as with the stressors of obligations, parties, and keeping up with the Joneses. But what about the ethics involved in the story of Santa?

Santa is a beautiful story, grounded in the story of St. Nicholas, who was rumored to have helped a poor man provide a dowry. St. Nicholas had a bag of gold appear mysteriously for his three daughters as each of them prepared to be married. He did it anonymously out of the goodness of his heart to help another person, and that beautiful story is the basis for Santa. However, today’s modern Santa story has turned a corner that leaves many parents with an ethical dilemma. You see, Santa is now more than just a beautiful story of anonymity and generosity to do right by someone when you have the ability. Today, Santa has become a figure that parents now use to control the behavior of their children.

Santa is the ethical compass by which parents say you must be good because he’s watching. And if you’re not he’s going to give you coal or tell you to give your presents back. Santa might not visit if you’re not good. He knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. The ethical dilemma presented is that we’re teaching children that there is no intrinsic motivation for doing right and being good. We’re teaching children that they should be good BECAUSE Santa is watching and not because it is the right thing to do.

The ethics of Santa has permeated our society, and it’s more than just the untruths we tell our children and the white lies we continue to tell them to keep up the original untruth. There is absolutely a magic in the season. There is absolutely a spirit that Santa represents of love, compassion, and gift giving, but when Santa becomes an instrument to harness children’s behavior in a positive direction rather than to represent the goodness of the season, we are at an ethical crossroads.

I don’t pretend to have the answers. It’s quite the struggle in my own home with a three and two-year-old. If we tell them the story of Santa, then as questions arise, do we have to lie to keep up the story? Do we have compounding stories to keep the magic alive, or do we tell them the truth before they find out from other sources? Do we tell them the truth about Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, without regard to the magic and the essence of childhood and the belief that we want to foster their imagination? These are all issues that parents face and there is a true market in helping parents navigate this. I point to the Elf on a Shelf as one way parents, of older children, are being provided ways to “keep the magic alive”. I point to technology, like the NORAD tracking system which uses Google earth. In our home, we have an app called “Caught in the Picture” that enables you to take a picture of your home and drop Santa into the photo. Part of our ethical dilemma is this question: Are these gimmicks we create to reinforce the lie we are telling our children?

How do we navigate this? I don’t pretend to know, but I am guided by the advice given to young Virginia in 1897, that without Santa, “there would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight… The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see…” (F. Church, The Sun, 09/21/1897).