It’s nearly Christmas, which means children around the world are writing letters to Santa and hoping they’ll get on his “nice” list. But Santa becomes more complicated for Montessori households.
There are 4 main reasons why Montessori does not teach children traditional belief in Santa Claus:
- It blurs the line between fantasy and reality
- It violates “respect for the child” as it requires some level of dishonesty
- It supports the idea of rewards or punishments based on behavior
- It is socially tricky regarding economically disadvantaged peers that receive fewer (or no) toys
This will be hard to hear for some families. But never fear, Montessori families can still joyfully celebrate Christmas! Read on to learn more about why Montessori and Santa (or at least a traditional view of Santa) don’t align.
Is Santa Real? Imaginative Play and Montessori
Imaginative play can be a fraught topic for Montessori communities. There is a common misconception that use of imagination is discouraged in Montessori spaces, or that Maria Montessori believed that children should never engage in imaginary play. This is not true.
Instead, Maria Montessori conducted classroom observations and studies that showed that most children seemed to prefer practicing and play-acting real life activities over engaging in fantasy. She was of the opinion that practical play (or “work,” as she refers to it) is more satisfying, beneficial, and developmentally appropriate for children, while also understanding that imagination is important for child development as well.
In Montessori classrooms, children are not strictly prohibited from playing pretend, but are instead encouraged to engage in practical play instead and are provided the toys and tools with which to do so.
An example of this, which is harmless by Montessori metrics, would be a group of children independently choosing (i.e. not directed or encouraged by an adult to do so) to play “house.” One child might act out a parent role while another child might play the child role and another child might even pretend to be the family dog.
This type of play is child-led, does not obfuscate the line between fantasy and reality, and is rooted in observations the child makes about their own world. Even the child playing the dog does not believe that they are actually a dog, but is instead acting out something they see in real life.
So, you might ask, then what’s the problem with Santa? This is where things get more nuanced. According to Montessori principles, it’s important to distinguish between activities that allow children to use their imagination/creativity and activities that serve to confuse children about the nature of reality. The latter is discouraged, as Maria Montessori placed a lot of importance on teaching children to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Santa and Respect for the Child
Respect for the child is one of the 5 Montessori principles. Some would say it is the underlying principle that supports the entire Montessori method.
By telling your children that Santa is real, you are lying to them. I know this sounds harsh. But in Montessori, it’s important to try and be as honest as possible with your children. Not only is this important for their development, but it also helps establish trust, respect, and reciprocal honesty within the parent/child relationship.
If this is a tough pill to swallow, take a minute to think: what are the benefits of having your children believe in Santa? It’s cute, sure, and might help your child fit in with extended family members or classmates if they’re attending a non-Montessori school.
But the disadvantages far outweigh any of these benefits. The dishonesty required to support the idea that Santa is real can potentially break the level of trust your child has in you, especially for children that tend to see things in black and white.
Santa Supports Rewards and Punishments
In general, the Montessori method uses positive discipline with natural consequences when necessary. Montessori does not do traditional extrinsic motivators such as “rewards and punishments” or bribes to get children to behave.
So the idea of the child being “naughty or nice” determining what is received on Christmas is simply not aligned with Montessori. Santa supports the idea that your child will be materially rewarded for good behavior or punished with lumps of coal for bad behavior.
In addition, it makes your child feel surveilled. “He sees you when you’re sleeping”. Really? This thought alone violates respect for the child while continuing to blur the lines between fantasy and reality.
Santa Is Socially Confusing
Lastly, the idea of Santa becomes socially tricky for children when they see their peers receive way fewer gifts or no gifts at all. For example, what about economically disadvantaged children, children with neglectful or abusive parents, children whose families don’t celebrate Christmas, and children in contact with foster care and criminal justice systems?
Do you want your child believing that Santa doesn’t care about those children? Do you want your child believing that those children are “bad” because they didn’t receive presents or received less-desirable presents? If your child asked why their friend, whose parents are between jobs and struggling with money, didn’t get as many presents as they did, how would you explain this to them?
Overall, it’s against Montessori practices (and probably just not a great idea in general) to encourage your child to believe in Santa. But does this mean you can’t celebrate Christmas? Of course not!
How to Talk About Santa with Your Montessori Child
So, let’s say you want to follow Montessori principles and decide not to tell your child that Santa is real. This still doesn’t mean that they won’t hear about Santa somewhere else. It’s very likely that they’ll still be exposed to Santa in the outside world. So, how can you talk to them about Santa in a way that is thoughtful, reasonable, and aligned with Montessori practices?
The most important thing is to emphasize that Santa is not a real person, but an imaginary figure. You can explain that some families like to pretend that he’s real, so if your child hears another child talking about Santa like he’s a real person, they don’t have to correct them.
In fact, in order to avoid conflict with other families, it might be wise to ask your child not to correct them. If your child seems developmentally ready, you can also explain that Santa is a symbol of the Christmas spirit. You could even make a list of qualities that Santa represents and explore how you and your child can embody those qualities during the holiday season.
Overall, it’s okay to talk about Santa with your child as long as you make sure to emphasize that he’s a fictional character, not a real person.
Celebrating Christmas the Montessori Way
Every family who celebrates Christmas celebrates it differently, and in no way is this article trying to dictate how you should structure your own family traditions. However, it’s important to note that most Christmas activities are entirely in keeping with Montessori methods and philosophies!
Christmas celebrates generosity, togetherness, love, family, and sharing, which are all Montessori values. Though Montessori is not informed by or aligned with any particular religion, it is also not an anti-religion philosophy.
In fact, Montessori teaching encourages children to learn about religion and place importance on spirituality. Montessori is inclusive to all different kinds of religious beliefs. So if your family has religious traditions associated with Christmas, that’s entirely welcome within Montessori practices.
Here are some additional Christmas traditions that are Montessori-aligned:
- Learning about the history and traditions of Christmas. We like to read our kids this book about St. Nicholas.
- Celebrating generosity and giving gifts. (This can connect nicely to Montessori peace education.)
- Making cards and gifts.
- Volunteering and charity work.
- Picking out, chopping down, and/or decorating a Christmas tree.
- Decorating your house for the holidays.
- Reading books related to the “Christmas spirit” of love, generosity, and togetherness.
- Making and decorating Christmas cookies.
- Working together to prepare Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals.
- Attending Christmas church services or any type of performance associated with Christmas (e.g. The Nutcracker.)
- Sharing time together as a family.
Check out our article on Montessori Christmas activities and our favorite Montessori Christmas trees for more information. And, no matter how you celebrate, we hope you have a fantastic holiday season!