December 11, 2014

Atheist Mama: How do Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf work for secular parenting?

There is no hell in our home, no celestial watchman worrying over every move that we make.

There's no one ticking off "naughty" and "nice" on some invisible list of activities. This is, of course, one of the perks of being an atheist raising freethinking children.

I have read many different takes on Santa Claus and how he fits into secular (and for that matter, religious) parenting.

Some secular parents believe that lying to your child is wrong, period, and so the Claus has no place in their home. Some describe Santa as the spirit of the holidays, so to speak.

When I was religious, there were many families that did not participate in Santa because they believed that it distracted from the true reason for the celebration. To them, Santa represented exactly what was wrong with the holiday--the consumerism and secularism that had overtaken the celebration of their savior's birth.

Overall, the game invites a wide variety of interpretations.

Personally, I never thought twice about playing Santa. I was excited to get the opportunity--it has been one of the activities that I have most looked forward to as a parent.

As I began to shift my parenting style to embrace and encourage freethinking values, though, I was torn. How could I walk the line between what I consider a fun tradition and betraying my children's trust in me?

The answer was simple, and I found it in a piece by Dale McGowan in his compilation Parenting Beyond Belief.

We believe in Santa--but we also actively encourage the questioning of our deepest held beliefs. Indeed, I tend to joke that my children will be ready to go to church when they are able to question Santa with absolutely no fear.

"Mom," my eight year old asked recently, "How does Santa get into our house? We don't have a chimney."

I'd been preparing for the question. I was excited to use my answer, to encourage discussion and critical thinking.

"I don't know, hon. What do you think?" I replied, just like I'd rehearsed in my head.

"Meh, I don't know. But I'm glad he does."

So maybe it didn't work out exactly like I'd planned and hoped for--but it was still a satisfying compromise for me between my values, which promote honesty in all things, and what I feel is a fun holiday game.

We've also been approaching Elf on the Shelf differently too.

First off, can I just say--I hate this damn thing. I really do. I never wanted it. I did not pick it out. I did not purchase it. The first year especially was just an imposition, because I was working in retail management, pulling 72 hour weeks, and then I'd get home exhausted and have to find something to do with the damned elf. My mother, bless her heart (in the true Southern sense ;) ), purchased the creepy bastard and started him while the boys were having a sleepover at her house.

But, my perhaps irrational but in my estimation totally justified hatred aside, we kept to the pretty standard script for the first two years--Barney (the Bastard Elf™) came and went, pulling pranks and reporting to Santa.

This year, we have been placing less emphasis on the idea of Barney tattling to Santa and more emphasis on him just having fun. Because that's what the whole game is about, isn't it? Having a little fun, pulling a few pranks, and letting kids enjoy the magic while it lasts.

So, our home falls on the pro-Santa, grudgingly pro-Elf-on-a-Shelf, side of the line.

And I'm fairly content with the compromise. We're using the opportunity to challenge our beliefs, to look for answers, to think about things, and it's added a whole new level of fun to the game.

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