Many of the lies we tell to young children are extensions of storytelling and make-believe. Kids are incessantly told, read, and shown stories about nonexistent people, places, and things. Their lives are inundated with stuff that never happened, or even worse, couldn’t have happened. There are no disclaimers like "This never happened,” or even stronger, "This couldn’t possibly have happened.” Children’s lives are particularly suffused with fiction because kids like to bring fictions into the real world through pretense ("Look, I’m a horse!”). Psychologist Alison Gopnik points out that kids pretend in a sustained way, talking to the same imaginary friend day after day or year after year. Some kids create imaginary places or schools that they keep returning to. Yet there is a line between fiction and fact, even for young kids. They do know the difference, according to Gopnik.
It’s into this enriched but delineated children’s world that parents insert some extra personae, just for fun: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the like. These characters are much like the ones kids encounter in books and movies, but they are presented to kids as if they were palpable figures in the real world. Santa comes down your chimney and places real presents under the tree that you can really open. The Easter Bunny gives you real, edible chocolate, and the Tooth Fairy gives you bona fide currency.
These figures fit in as denizens of a child’s world, considering the magical beings that are already a part of it. So there’s that defense of lying to kids. But if this is the defense, it matters how we do it. Parents would be wrong to tell their child about Santa Claus in exactly the same tone they use when explaining about the president or Grandma. If we tell our kids about magical beings to expand their imaginative worlds, then we ought to adopt something at least close to the tone of make-believe.
What throws kids, making them seriously believe in Santa Claus and all his ilk, is the purported way that these figures interact with the real world, an impossibility in the case of fictions. As parents, we can play up the bizarreness of the interaction, thereby making that seem to come out of the realm of fiction too ("You see, Santa Claus squeezes through a billion chimneys, leaving presents for a billion kids, all in one night”). You can say this to a child with a twinkle in your eye just like the one kids themselves have when they prance around saying "I’m a horse!” (Gopnik says there is a typical look and giggle when kids are pretending.) Sure, there’s a bunny who hauls around a ton of chocolate and puts it in baskets on Easter morning (twinkle). Yes, there’s a fairy who knows what’s under every single child’s pillow (twinkle).
The advantage of adopting this winking tone is that we’re not betraying the trust of children so much. We’re actually giving them the tools to answer their own questions, if they want the answers. We can have fun with make-believe even if we don’t take it to the limit, making kids believe in Santa Claus in exactly the way they believe in the moon or Grandma.