Santa Claus isn’t real, but let me tell you about Heaven
It is a bad idea to blur the line between real and imaginary in your child’s mind.
Prologue: We are born credulous
Children tend to be credulous. They believe that a fat man in a red suit flies across the sky on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. As they grow, children learn to distinguish the real from the imaginary and to use (or to request) evidence to help them make that distinction. Acquiring this skill takes years. During that time, children tend to give special trust to testimony accompanied by efforts on part of the adults. Why should we bother to decorate the Christmas tree, to write letters and to lay out cookie plates if Santa did not exist?
Children’s credulity offers a clear evolutionary advantage. A child who insists on putting her hand into fire, on jumping from heights and on running off to play with wolves will see her chances of survival drop. Thus, adults have a special influence on children, especially those adults with whom the child already has a trusting rapport (family and educators).
But with this influence also comes great responsibility. Whether we ask for it explicitly or not, children will tend to copy the behavior and beliefs of adults. Therefore, if we want to stimulate the development of a robust analytical thinking in our children and students, it is important to give them the necessary tools early on, to teach them how to distinguish reality from fiction and to try to unseat any silly notions already rooted in their brains. Also, since children mainly copy the beliefs to which we dedicate time and effort, we must also cleanse our own behavior of superstitions. What we know to be a joke, a ridiculous superstition, can become a firm law for a child, with consequences for decades.
And now, let us laugh!
Hell is an eternal torment and also it stinks
My grandparents lived in a big house in Bucharest (later, in 1988, the visionary Ceaușescu decided that it is better for society that my grandparents move in a small one-bedroom apartment so that their house can be replaced by snob restaurants on Decebal Boulevard). I liked visiting them because each floor of the house had a different family, each with its own attractions. Some days I went (or they sent me to get rid of me) to visit every floor to take stock of things. I started in my uncle’s den down in the semi-basement; he had a reel-to-reel tape recorder, huge speakers, good music and he watched Studio X¹. Then I went upstairs to grandpa’s sister, who had the prettiest playing cards and taught me patience card games. Up on the last floor lived a tenant who had told me she had a heart condition, so sometimes I stopped by to ask her to please not die.
One day when I was maybe six years old, grandpa’s sister gave me an orthodox Christian pamphlet for scaring children. It was about a little girl who does some mischief and then an angel comes to show her a vision of hell. The pamphlet also had pictures, some engravings in this style:
36 years later, I still remember all sorts of details about the book. I was horrified to learn that there are devils who burn people and torment them with forks. I was surprised that hell smells bad, a rather unimportant attribute compared to the fire and forks (even today I am surprised that theologians consider it necessary to include this detail, which I have encountered repeatedly in religious books). And I grasped, as much as a six-year-old child can grasp the notion of eternity, that once you go to hell you never get out.
The really odious part is that I never thought that these things could simply be a concoction. An adult gave me a book. I read it. I assumed that what was written in it was true.
Our Father, who art in heaven, help me ask a girl to dance
Around the same time, my parents taught me the Our Father. There was no special occasion; I was just settling down for my afternoon nap. They wrapped me up, told me this prayer, and mentioned that I could repeat it if I was afraid of something or needed help.
And boy, did I repeat it! What child in this world is unafraid and does not need help? From my fear of the dark to going to the dentist and from school quizzes to summoning the courage to talk to a girl, Our Father was my Swiss army knife.
Critical thinking was not my strong suit at the time. I didn’t understand concepts like double-blind experiment, observer bias, systematic error, autosuggestion, Russell’s teapot. I didn’t ask whether the prayer helps. In my defense… I was 6 years old! I was simply convinced that Our Father works.
We will never know what use I could have found for that area of the brain instead of this self-deception. Perhaps I would have learned to handle my fear of the dark rationally, by seeing that nights are beautiful, not scary: they have crickets and stars and silence and cool air. Perhaps I could have asked for advice from family and friends on how to talk to girls. Perhaps I could have realized that, if you want to ask a girl to dance, you have to open your mouth and say “wanna dance”? And sometimes girls will accept you, but other times they will reject you, and that is regardless of any magical incantation. But why should I have bothered? I already had the bread and the knife, the screwdriver and the sledgehammer: Our Father.
True by omission
Around the age of seven or eight, I asked my parents why we celebrate Easter. And they said to me in a very solemn tone: Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world. There was no hint of uncertainty in their explanation. The sentence did not begin with “it is said that” or “Christians believe that”, nor did it end with “but I do not know how we could test this hypothesis.” Had that been the case, I would have interpreted the sentence in its correct sense.
I had no reason to question this information, because it came from trusted people, from people who explained everything to me logically. From the same parents I had received confirmation of my suspicion that Santa Claus was not real, with unbeatable arguments: how could Santa deliver billions of gifts in one night?
In addition, the statement, being abstract, was difficult to test rigorously. For example, by the age of eight I was already quite sure that there was no levitation, because I had tried really hard to levitate and had not succeeded. On the other hand, it was impossible for me to verify whether or not Jesus had taken the sins of the world upon himself. I said to myself, therefore, (1) that Jesus is an awfully nice guy and (2) that there is an invisible level where sins are transacted.
We are all obsessed with the question: what is the right age to tell children that Santa isn’t real? Should we wait for them to find out on their own? What do we do if they cry, if they feel betrayed, if they lose confidence in us? Undeniably, these are important questions. But we should be more concerned with the considerably more treacherous figments for which the revelation “this is not for real” never comes.
Horoscopes: how to organize your life after a charlatan’s baloney
In the first years after the Revolution, Romania was a Wild West of horoscopes (probably afterwards too, but I stopped caring). Everywhere you looked you found one: on the radio, on TV, in the newspapers. I suspect that any newspaper pretty much had to include the zodiac so as not to lose its readers.
I didn’t escape this craze either. Again, the effort of those around me spoke volumes. What can a 12 year old’s brain conclude from the observation that everyone around treats horoscopes as infallible sources of information, as prophecies about the future snatched away in esoteric ways? There were exceptions, people who did not read the horoscope, but no one actively told me “horoscopes are quackery”.
So, for about five years, I too believed in horoscopes. I was not 100% sold on the details, but I believed the essence: that a good part of our actions and our relationships are beyond our control. And so each morning I would listen, like a spectator to my own life, to what was going to happen to me and to a twelfth of Earth’s inhabitants, all described by a single sentence on some radio station: some failure in love or some luck in my career. I tacitly conflated career with school, because the horoscope was necessarily right and only had to be adjusted to the framework of my existence.
At one point I got a compatibility horoscope covering every pair of signs. Unlike the brief notes in newspapers, this was a large-scale work, because it had to cover 12 × 12 = 144 cases. Therefore, it was clearly true: why would anyone work so hard to write hogwash? I carefully read the section about my sign (let’s call it Dinosaur) and much to my chagrin I learned that I was utterly incompatible with my girlfriend at the time. Grief, of course, was followed by the unwavering resolution to fight this ruthless fate. Still, a few months later we broke up. Coincidence? Obviously not!
Moreover, during that time of sexual emancipation in the Romanian press (The Passion, The Bunny, Female Felon) I got my hands on a sexual horoscope! When I read, at the age of 14, about the erogenous zones of each zodiac sign, I felt a world of infinite possibilities open before me. Of course, in practice I was still at the stage of hand holding…
I don’t recall exactly when I got over this stage. I remember that when I was 17 the late computer science teacher Sorin Tudor told me how he had been to the seaside with his computer and his printer to print horoscopes and sell them on the beach (“your destiny predicted by a supercomputer!”). He told me how he made them up himself and that amused me a lot, but it didn’t shock me, which means that I had already realized that (surprise!) the placement of some stars does not foretell people’s destiny.
The carnival of poppycock
In the 1990s, Romania was a fertile ground for occult theories of all kinds. I do not know to what extent these theories still survive today. I have a sad hunch that they are doing well, or maybe they even proliferated, but today I have the means and the common sense to isolate myself from them.
As a teenager (between 1990 and 1996) I heard and talked about the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, spiritism, coffee / palm / card reading, dream interpretation, ghosts, astrology, telepathy, telekinesis, pyramidology, biorhythms, card patiences, Atlantis , the water engine, chakras, air drafts, bioenergy, miracles, levitation, biblical creationism, huge sea monsters, perpetual motion, abductions by sectarians, hidden planets, predestination, alien abductions, homeopathy, the end of the world, feng shui, communicating with plants , extracorporeal experiences, reincarnation, tarot, the mummy’s curse, influences of the moon on behavior, acupuncture meridians, the Bates method to improve vision, hexagonal water, water memory, hens giving birth to live chicks, self help, Nostradamus, the aquatic stage in human history and, of course, religions, chiefly Orthodox Christianity.
I already knew or suspected that most of these were poppycock. For example, I never believed in telepathy or in alien abductions. But others I did believe. I practiced the Bates method for a whole year, hoping to get rid of my glasses. And if I happened to dream of a girl from school, then I would necessarily fall in love with her, because I believed that nothing is accidental in dreams.
Martians and Satan
I was not a delusional child. I generally understood that fantastic things are fantastic. I read a lot of fairy tales as a child, then sci-fi as a teenager, and I never conceived that what I was reading might actually be true. I knew there were no Martians. Perhaps the only exception was Erich von Däniken’s book (Chariots of the Gods?), which raised many questions for me.
At the same time, when I was about 12 a classmate said to me, “You know Satan exists, don’t you? Has anything inexplicable ever happened to you, such as an object flying out of your hand? ” And I had no objections. I already knew that God exists, and Satan is a package deal, right? Of course, since then I have broken enough plates and glasses to know that sometimes objects fly out of your hand because you are clumsy. But at that time, if the natural explanation was insufficient (you dropped the object because you did not hold it well), the only remaining explanation was Satan.
Where does this inconsistent treatment stem from?
Sprinting in the dark
When I was 11, I saw some scenes from a horror movie on VHS (I looked it up this year and it turns out it was A Nightmare on Elm Street). The rest of the family was watching the movie while I was playing in the room, so I took a sneak peek.
From that ensued the biggest fears of my life, with no close second. I couldn’t sleep facing the wall for two years. I only went to bed after checking underneath every piece of furniture and I slept with the blanket pulled up over my head, my face to the room and my eyes on the door. I covered myself even in the summertime, despite all the sweat. During the summers I slept with a thin sheet, which I did not like, because I felt that a blanket or, even better, a duvet, would have given me more protection in case a monster entered my room.
Going to the bathroom became a crazy sprint. Carl Lewis himself could not have caught me on that thousand-mile-long, pitch-black hallway separating my room from the bathroom. And I won’t go into details about how hard it is to pee like boys do while looking in terror at the door, back over your shoulder.
The shower routine also took on a rococo complexity. I couldn’t close my eyes for a moment, because any drop in vigilance would have allowed the monster to barge in on me. So I washed my hair with my eyes open, keeping my face downwards, but looking up towards the bathroom door. Then I washed my face one half at a time, closing one eye at a time. But it was worth it! See, no monster caught me.
If I was ever home alone in the evening, then any trip through the house took the form of a string of jumps from one light switch to another, so that I would not have to walk in the dark.
When you explain to a child that there is an unseen plane of existence, it is impossible to then clarify that the plane is only inhabited by beings approved by the Church, while Freddy Krueger is not allowed to enter because he is a fictional character. They are all fictional characters.
A baloney filter with a hole for religion
The reason why some baloney passes the filter of reason, but other baloney does not, is that nobody explains to us the scientific method of acquiring knowledge, either at school or elsewhere. A scientific truth must be verifiable by a well-meaning but skeptical observer, and a scientific theory must make testable predictions. A theory that does not make testable predictions is not falsifiable and therefore is not a scientific theory. It’s as simple as that.
Absent the understanding of this mechanism, my brain accepted or blocked the various theories on who knows what other criteria. I didn’t have a consistent bullshit filter and I didn’t get one until I was 35 years old. And a bullshit filter with 99% efficiency will still let some baloney through, because there is a lot of baloney and its promoters are insidious and trained to pass through bullshit filters.
Without this filter, I did not understand for all those years that the Christian theory of eternal life also fits into the long list above. There is no criterion that differentiates the above baloney from the Christian religion, no criterion according to which baloney is baloney, but eternal life is real. Like all the other theories, the Christian theory does not make testable predictions, so it is not falsifiable. As they say, it’s not even false.
Epilogue: The drawer that doesn’t exist
Children learn things somewhat like Bayesian classifiers. They test their hypotheses to see if they stand up to scrutiny. Adults can fuel this process. If we “train” them with enough examples and explain, to their ability, the nature of each example, they will learn to classify patterns and recognize novel instances in the future. If we use the words red and yellow correctly, then children will learn the colors quickly. If, on the other hand, we are inconsistent and we occasionally tell them that red is yellow, just to make fun of them, then children will need more time to learn the colors. If we orchestrate a prank à la Santa Claus, whereby all the adults at home say red instead of yellow, and all the parents of their schoolmates do the same, then the deception can last for years.
Classifying notions into real and imaginary works the same way. If we as parents keep telling our children that an imaginary thing is real, even though all the available evidence shows that it is imaginary, then we risk causing irreparable confusion. This idea is as bad and harmful as its opposite: convincing children that the real drawer in their room does not, in fact, exist.
The admission of existence of occult phenomena of any kind, once seated in the mind, causes all manner of damage. First, it undermines self-confidence and self-worth: all the merits for the good things that I do belong to the horoscope, to divinity or to destiny. Next, it undermines trust in the connection between cause and effect, a basic principle of the Universe. I will not get a high or low grade at school based on whether I have studied enough or not, but based on whether I have prayed enough or not.
For the sake of their brains, no children should be subjected to such devastating experiments.
 Studio X was a Saturday night TV show in 1980s Bulgaria. It broadcast much better Western movies than anything on Romanian TV at the time.