Sinterklaas: A fun lie or bad for bonding with your child?

Interview with Rianne Kok on her research into lying to children
ANP/Robin Utrecht

Sinterklaas does not exist. Yet every year a large group of people in the Netherlands pretend that he does. With a daily Sinterklaas newscast and media attention for the Sinterklaas arrival, we go big with this 'folk tale'. Dr. Rianne Kok, associate professor of Clinical Child and Family Studies (Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences) researches lying to children. Is it bad that we lie to children about the existence of Sinterklaas? And if we choose to lie about Sinterklaas, what can we look out for?

Typically Dutch

Sinterklaas is very Dutch. Lying about Sinterklaas is perhaps best compared to lying about Father Christmas, but there are other examples of 'Sinterklaas-like'. Kok: "To my knowledge, other examples are not as big as in Dutch Sinterklaas." Moreover, when she looks at these figures, Kok notices that they can often be frightening characters. "You see that our Sinterklaas celebrations have become less exciting over the years, though. Abroad, I do see more of that excitement. There is often a devil-like figure present, for example."

Folk tales with a function

The Sinterklaas story is an example of a folk tale. Folk tales often have a moral message for children about good and evil. Sometimes they are also meant to make children obey certain rules. For example, in areas with a lot of water, there are stories about sea monsters to ensure that children do not play too close to the water. There are also stories about bogeymen who take children when they leave their beds. These stories are told to make sure children stay in bed at night. So stories with an educational role. Standards and values are also passed on through folk tales. Kok: "This is partly the same with Sinterklaas. But I do see a movement: many parents try to interpret the celebration in a mainly positive way. And in 2020, Sinterklaas apologised in the Sinterklaasjournaal for taking children in the sack, saying he really doesn't do that anymore."

Dr. Rianne Kok in Langeveld Building

Long-term effect

But is it bad that we lie to children about the existence of Sinterklaas? "There is no scientific evidence that lying about Sinterklaas is harmful to children," she says. Studies have been done, though, especially on Father Christmas, and they show that there is actually no long-term effect. Some children suffer more than others. But you also hear a lot that children enjoy being allowed to join the adults afterwards, and that that makes up for a lot of it.
Kok tells of a study in America in the 1970s, in which children who were now in on it were asked what they thought adults should do for the younger children. Kok: "The vast majority said, 'We do have to keep lying to those smaller children about Santa, because they're enjoying it so much'."

"There is no scientific evidence that lying about Sinterklaas is harmful to children"

80% of parents lie to their child

If you ask the average parent whether he or she thinks it's okay if you lie to children as a parent, the answer is usually no at first. Because lying, we have all learned, is not allowed. Yet in practice, parents tell untruths to offspring on a daily basis: about what's in dinner, or what time it is, for instance. No previous research has been done in the Netherlands, but international research shows that 80% of parents lie to their children.

Jongetje verkleed als Sinterklaas zet laarsjes voor de kachel

Lying tips

Kok is very often asked for advice on lying to children, including at Sinterklaas time. She does have a few ideas in this regard. One is: don't threaten. Saying that a child will not get presents or will be taken to Spain. "Threatening can be very frightening for children. I don't think that's desirable, because then it's no longer a nice lie, but the children can really lose sleep over it." In addition, Kok recommends following the child's lead. "Children start asking questions at some point. That is a natural moment to follow along as parents: does Sinterklaas actually exist? I can imagine that at such a moment you shouldn't pull out an extra set of lies."
Kok: "Parents often wonder if lying has an effect on trust and bonding with their child. What can I do and cannot do, and what should I watch out for? That's what I try to answer in my research."

Associate professor

Dr. Rianne Kok

More information

Read more about Dr Kok's research at Nu.nl and in Quest (both in Dutch)

Taking part in the survey

Are you a parent or carer? Then you can help with this study by filling in this questionnaire. The questions are about whether you ever use a white lie and, if so, when. Currently, the following categories of parents are most needed: fathers, parents of children aged 0-6 and parents of children over 16.
 

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