News this week is that Ladysmith junior school, in south-west England, has been forced to apologise to parents after a class was taught that Santa Claus is a myth.

This raises again one of the oldest questions in history: should we treat children as human beings?

Since almost half of our federal politicians recently were willing to sign up to the notion that a few-day-old clump of cells should be treated as a person, you might think that the case of nine and ten-year-olds would not be controversial. But it’s a sad truth that those who are most keen to give rights to “unborn children” lose interest in their moral status after birth.

There are lots of reasons why children can’t always be treated as fully-fledged citizens, but the onus of proof should always be on those who want to rely on coercion or lies.

Yet many adults see it the other way around; their comfort or caprice justify keeping children in the dark, and schools (or anyone else) should have to justify enlightening them. As one Exeter parent said, “What gives the school the right to decide when children should know the truth …?”

It throws an interesting light on Australia’s debate about school standards, and the Howard government’s claim that some combination of Maoism, post-modernism and moral relativism is ruining our children’s education. Someone should ask these critics what they think of the conspiracy to hide facts from students.

I’d be happy to be proved wrong, but my suspicion is that the likes of Julie Bishop and Kevin Donnelly are quite comfortable with the idea.

In reality, of course, most of the children are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of mythology, and of sharing in the spirit of stories – whether Santa Claus, or the gods of Olympus, or the stories of the bible – while at another level realising they are not literally true.

One might even suggest that they understand that better than their elders do.

Peter Fray

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