Local parent tells other local parent how to raise their children: this scenario has provoked many a neighborhood listserv flamewar, and maybe a street brawl or three. Unkempt and inflammatory philosopher Slavoj Žižek telling parents how to raise their children? Well… maybe a few hundred eyerolls.
I exaggerate. Žižek only addresses one small aspect of parenting—a benign, culturally specific one at that, which ranks far beneath, say, health and education and falls in line with whether one should pretend to be a nocturnal creature who lives on children’s teeth, or to see a giant rabbit in the spring.
We’re talking about Santa Claus, and to lie or not to lie to your kids is the question posed to Žižek by students at SUNY Brockport in the low-quality video above. If you can adjust to the audio/video, you’ll hear the cultural theorist give an interesting answer. I can’t vouch for its consonance with child psychology, but as a parent, I can say my tiny demographic confirms the insight.
Though he’s nearly inaudible at first, we eventually hear Žižek saying, “No… they will absolutely take it as this cynical [reason?] of ‘let’s pretend that it’s real,’ no matter how much you insist that you mean it literally.” For those who might agonize over the question, it may be most kids aren’t nearly as gullible as we imagine, just good sports who don’t want to let us down.
This would not be a Žižek answer if it did not veer into claims far more ambitious, or grandiose, than the question seems to warrant. Sensing perhaps he’s on shaky ground with the whole parenting advice thing, he quickly moves on to the subject of “what does it mean, really, to believe?” Belief, says Žižek—in the sense of individual, inward assent to metaphysical propositions—is a modern invention.
In attempting to make Saint Nicholas believable to children, we’ve paradoxically turned him into a cartoon character (and in the U.S. and elsewhere banished his lovable demon sidekick, Krampus). Kids see right through it, says Žižek in another interview above. And so, “You have a belief which is nobody’s belief! Nobody believes in the first person.”
Why, then, not just admit we’re all pretending, and say “we’re enjoying a story together”? We do it every night with children, this one just involves food, lights, family, gifts, sweaters, uncomfortable travel and maybe religious ceremonies of your tradition. You can often hear Žižek opine on those kinds of beliefs as well. My only comment on the matter is to say, sincerely, Happy Holidays.