The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, every year I do a quick physics lesson on Santa Claus, with the result being a devastation of the Santa myth (see my previous post “How I Killed Santa”: The Physics of Santa Claus for more on this :) )  Yeah, I admit it – I’m evil.

Of course, that lesson is more geared towards students who are in their late teenage years, because by then they already know that Santa isn’t real.  So, while the humor involved in my analysis is quite dark (Santa dies pretty spectacularly in the end), there isn’t going to be any real psychological trauma done to my students.

However, this year it got something of a debate going among some of my students.  Some wondered about the appropriateness of sharing such a lesson with young children, who might still harbor a sincere belief in Santa Claus.  Personally, I expressed the view that if I were to try to get my own children (if I had any) to think more critically about the Santa myth, I certainly wouldn’t do it using the same method in my physics classes where he ends up bursting into flames and squashed to jelly by atrociously large g-forces!

So, the question was put to me: “How would you deal with the whole Santa Claus thing if you had kids?”  It is a worthwhile question, because I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to be simply blindly believing in Santa just because all the other kids are doing it.  Chances are, when the kids are of the appropriate age (I’d think 5 or 6 would be about right), I would ask them some leading questions about the nature of Santa.

Specifically, if I were at the mall with one of my children and there were a worker there dressed as Santa meeting with kids (you know the usual scene), I would encourage them to observe Santa closely…

Image source

I would encourage them to note carefully details such as how big is Santa, exactly what is he wearing, and so on.  In order to help them with their observations, I would probably take photos for later analysis.  Then I would make sure to tell them to pay careful attention to Santa’s voice as they sit on his lap to discuss what Santa and kids discuss (I might also record video of the event for this reason).

After that, I would take my children to another mall (because, let’s face it, most of us do our shopping at more than one place, right?).  I would make sure to find the Santa at that second mall, and have my kid go through the entire process again.  And so on.

Then, at a later time, I would take some time to sit down and look over the evidence with my children, leading them through it and noting inconsistencies between the multiple Santas they’ve observed.  This would be especially interesting if we saw more than one in the same night! (“So Dad, how did Santa get from one mall to the other so quickly?” ;) )

The bottom line here is that I wouldn’t want to come right out and tell my kids that Santa is a myth (though a fun and jolly one at that).  Rather, I would use the entire experience as a lesson for my kids to try thinking it through on their own, making careful observations, weighing the evidence, and drawing the obvious conclusions.  I think this would be a far more useful way to introduce children to the reality that Santa isn’t real, and it would also be an excellent exercise in encouraging critical thinking and skepticism in youngsters.

For more on this topic and approach, I highly recommend reading my colleague Barbara Drescher’s well-written post at the JREF Swift blog titled An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

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6 Responses to “Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids”

  1. Ron Murphy said

    I’d agree with Barbara Drescher’s positive view on Santa, as echoed in one of the comments, where the Lahurongirl’s son realised there was no Santa, but still wanted to maintain the story for his younger sister. I’ve seen the same insight and intention from children I know – which is just spoiler avoidance. There’s the implicit assumption that their younger siblings will get to the end of the Santa ‘novel’ too, one day, so why spoil it for them now.

    But Barbara seems to take the point too far. Does Richard Dawkins really not like fiction for children? This seems more like Barbara is jumping on a journalistic bandwagon picking up on a simple quote, attributed to Dawkins:

    Guardian:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/oct/27/richard-dawkins-childrens-literature

    Quotes Dawkins: “…looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”
    And the author, Jean Hannah Edelstein, goes on to say, “Dawkins sounds to me not unlike the fundamentalist Christian mums who tried to get Roald Dahl’s The Witches banned from my primary school for fear that it would undermine what their kids had learned at Sunday school rather than acknowledging that sometimes, stories are just stories.”

    Telegraph:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3255972/Harry-Potter-fails-to-cast-spell-over-Professor-Richard-Dawkins.html

    “I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News. (a reporting of a reporting then)

    Double Think Online

    http://americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly/2008/10/27/richard-dawkins-scourge-of-fun/

    “Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

    All sadly similar. Seems like some quote mining has been going on.

    But I’m not sure what the controversy is here. Dawkins is expressing a good scientific response to the question of the effect of stories on children – i.e. he doesn’t know, and would be interested in any research to that effect. I don’t think he’s claiming there is an effect. Unlike someone like Susan Greenwood, who has been the butt of Ben Goldacre’s ire for some time for her claims, without evidence, about the effects of some modern media, such as computer games.

    Much fiction for young children, such as the Santa myth, are expressed as truths, knowing full well that as older children and as adults they will grow out of them, hopefully learn something positive about the susceptibility of humans to gullibility, and, in the mean time, enjoy some magical fantasy for a while. There minds are malleable enough to learn and later unlearn, so what’s the harm? How many adults do we know that still believe in Santa to make that fiction worth worrying about?

    The significant difference with religion – and this is where I see Barbara as being wrong – is that these fictions are carried on seriously into adulthood. In a religious family and social environment there is specifically, usually, no opportunity or encouragement to challenge the religious dogma, and indeed the prospect some traumatic ostracism for doing so. In fact the strength of belief instilled in children by adults, and seen by children to be genuine beliefs in adults, is what does the long term damage and causes serious disability when it comes to applying critical thinking to those beliefs.

    And, it doesn’t matter that “Religion is not a barrier to science literacy”, as Barbara puts it – Francis Collins and Ben Miller show this; as long as you limit the science that we are being ‘literate’ about. If you do apply the usual requirement for evidence to everything then the only rational conclusion about the source of the universe beyond what current science shows is, we don’t know. Now, that certainly does allow, as metaphysical speculations, some passive ‘natural’ explanation, or even some active ‘agency’ explanation – though the latter then needs explaining too. But none of this speculation is sufficient to warrant the subsequent claims by any of the main religions. So, in that wider scientific sense, deeply instilled religious belief is a barrier to science.

  2. [...] The Skeptical Teacher has a post on Santa. [...]

  3. [...] Matt Lowry wrote a blog-post on Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids – just as Tim Minchin wrote a piece for the New Statesman about his own efforts to balance [...]

  4. [...] Using Mythology as a Critical Thinking Tool: The Lesson of Santa for Kids [...]

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  6. [...] made numerous posts on the subject before, including The Physics of Santa Claus, how the idea of Santa Claus can be used as a tool to teach critical thinking to kids (including a podcast interview I did on the subject), and the tongue-in-cheek celebration of [...]

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