Kids, have you been naughty, or nice? With Christmas just around the corner, children are excitedly making their lists and checking them twice. They’re dreaming about Christmas tree lights, and stocking filled with presents, and Santa flying on his sleigh with Rudolph leading the way.

While these tales capture children’s imaginations, and transform Christmas into a magical time, you have to wonder if the Santa lie may do more harm than good.

Psychologists now worry that this “Santa lie” might be damaging to kids in the long-term.

The Santa Lie

In a paper published in the Lancet Psychiatry, psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay, suggest that telling kids that Santa or Father Christmas is real may actually lead children to be distrustful of their parents in the future.

“The morality of making children believe in such myths has to be questioned. All children will eventually find out they’ve been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they’ve been told,” says Professor Boyle, of the University of Exeter, in a news release.

“Whether it’s right to make children believe in Father Christmas is an interesting question, and it’s also interesting to ask whether lying in this way will affect children in ways that have not been considered.”

I’ve often wondered if this little white lie about Santa, and the tooth fairy, will undermine children’s trust in their parents.

I worry that when they discover the truth, they will feel betrayed, and then unable to trust their parents.

“If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?” researchers say.

Is this theory too extreme?

The authors also acknowledged that occasionally lying to children may be appropriate, and  justifiable. These are white lies, which can prevent children from feeling hurt.

“An adult comforting a child and telling them that their recently deceased pet will go to a special place (animal heaven) is arguably nicer than telling graphic truths about its imminent re-entry into the carbon cycle,” they said.

But when such a big lie repeated by all the adults around them, I can see how children could wonder whether lying is really all that bad. It might lead them to question whether other things they have been told are also untrue.

“If adults have been lying about Santa, even though it has usually been well-intentioned, what else is a lie? If Santa isn’t real, are fairies real? Is magic? Is God?”

While studies on the topic are limited, the two scientists point out that all of this may have long-term effects on children that have not yet been considered, for instance on their development or on their understanding of what is moral or not.

The Bright Side

Some researchers have argued that discovering the truth about Santa and understanding that sometime parents can lie also has positive effects: it can promote healthy skepticism in children that will help them as adults.

Dr. McKay also offers an explanation as to why adults get into the trend of perpetuating fictitious characters like Father Christmas.

“The persistence of fandom in stories like Harry Potter, Star Wars and Doctor Who well into adulthood demonstrates this desire to briefly re-enter childhood. Many people may yearn for a time when imagination was accepted and encouraged, which may not be the case in adult life,” she said.

“Might it be the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation of something better, something to believe in, something to hope for in the future or to return to a long-lost childhood a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?”