When I think of the “equals” sign in algebra, I think of it as a statement that something is true. For example, if an equation says that something is equal to a number, adding or subtracting a value to or from both sides leads to a statement that is equally true. This concept of “truth” has been on my mind recently as we approach Christmas, and I find myself in discussions with fellow mothers about the idea of “Santa Claus”.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a “mom’s night out” with a few other mothers from my neighborhood. We ended up at a local restaurant that is also a sports bar, and found ourselves to be a cluster of women drinking soft drinks and munching on appetizers in the midst of a crowd of men cheering on the local football team on wall-sized televisions. The contrast between our conversations and the mixture of beer and testosterone that flowed around us led us to laugh. However, one of those conversations left me with an unsettled feeling, as I think it brought up some important issues for parents at this time of the year.
The group I was with included mothers with children whose ages ranged from toddlers to junior high, and it quickly became clear that the mothers of the younger children were looking to the mothers of the older children for advice. One topic that came up fairly quickly in that group was the question of Santa Claus. Did your children still believe in him? How do you handle it in your house? What happens when one child discovers the truth, and the others don’t know yet? I mostly sat and listened, injecting my own thoughts only occasionally. However, when we left, I could not get the issue out of my mind. In fact, this seems to be a common topic of conversation this time of year for mothers I find myself conversing with in various situations.
I recall one conversation I had a few years ago with a colleague who is a theologian. As a theologian, she is used to dealing with stories that are seen as myths by a large proportion of people, but which many believe contain a strong core of truth. She said that she is always careful to prefix her talks about Santa with the phrase “the story goes…”, as in “the story goes that he lives in the North Pole with his wife and some elves.” This, she believes, allows her to maintain her allegiance to the truth while informing her young children of the jolly old elf that brings gifts on Christmas. This is in contrast to one other mother I know who is careful to have special wrapping paper for gifts from Santa, so the children will always know which gifts came from Santa and which came from parents. A middle ground is one friend who makes sure that Santa does not get all the credit for all the gifts; there are always a few gifts for her children from mom and dad, who, after all, are the ones who did all the work and pay all the bills for the celebration.
I recall the paragraph I wrote on one of my syllabi several years ago. I said something like “as we are all scholars in search of the truth, academic dishonesty, in the form of cheating or plagiarism, will not be tolerated and will be punished to the fullest extent allowed by the Student Handbook.” I am struck by the characteristic of myself as a scholar in search of the truth, whatever that might be, and the fact that I was willing to go through great efforts to perpetuate an elaborate hoax every December, so my child would believe in a character that does not, in the traditional sense, exist. I wanted to ask my readers how you deal with this issue, and whether you have found a way to discuss Santa with your children without leaving you feeling that you are distorting the truth. I would love to hear any thoughts, and would also like to wish everyone a joyful and happy Holiday season.