Marc Cornock is an academic lawyer and Senior Lecturer at The Open University, and he also writes regularly for the Nursing Standard. In this article, he explores the dilemma faced by those in caring professions when asked “is Santa real?”
The Santa question isn’t just for parents
It’s the question many parents dread in the build up to Christmas, when their curious child, perhaps spurred on by the talk in the playground, asks whether Santa truly exists. It often results in many a muddled answer from an adult, trying to cover all bases and ensure their child is still a believer by the time they go to sleep on Christmas Eve. We may think parents have it tough as they struggle with older siblings, concealing crucial presents and avoiding the children spotting the Amazon delivery. But what many people may not realise is that the Santa question is often put to someone other than a parent and one faced with a much more complicated dilemma.
Many professionals come into contact with children around Christmas. These children may be in difficult circumstances and it’s not quite as simple as proffering a comforting “white lie” – especially when your job is bound by legal constraints.
Many professionals face this tricky situation
Social workers are one of the professional groups that may have to answer the Santa question. What makes the situation trickier for them is that they may be dealing with complex family situations; single parents; lone children; individuals who have emotional needs and wishes; and children who want their home to be reunited.
Teachers are often approached by their pupils to answer questions outside of the strict educational context, including the Santa one. What can make the question more difficult to answer for a teacher is that they may not be asked by just one child, it could be said in front of a whole class during “carpet time” and they may face a challenge from a bright spark sitting on the floor. It’s even possible that the school has a policy of simply not discussing Father Christmas, to avoid wading into arguments.
Yet that may not stop the question being asked by the curious child, perhaps hoping for some comfort (or an Xbox One). Police officers are also asked questions that may not be entirely within their remit, but most young children are in awe of the local Bobby and will believe what they are told.
For those unlucky enough to be in hospital over Christmas there are the nurses and doctors caring for them. Even these professionals are asked the Santa question.
The horns of the dilemma
So what should these professionals say? All are expected to act ethically with honesty and integrity at all times. All have some form of code of conduct that requires this from them and can sanction them if they do not act ethically.
As an academic lawyer, the competing, often conflicting, demands upon a professional is something that concerns me. So how can we help the professional asked the Santa question?
A sprinkling of legal magic…
If we take the example of the nurse we can walk through the dilemma to see how this can be resolved to the satisfaction of all, including the child who still believes in Santa.
Whilst not wanting to cause any upset, for the purposes of this discussion, we will assume that Santa does not exist…
Nurses are bound by the Nursing & Midwifery Council code of professional standards and behaviours (this is similar in scope to many other ethical codes). The Nursing & Midwifery Council code states that nurses must ‘act with honesty and integrity at all times’. This would seem to be quite clear and appears to require nurses to tell their patients that Santa does not exist. However, doing that will probably result in a very disappointed, if not distraught, child.
So, how can a nurse act with honesty and integrity, to fulfil the requirements of the Nursing & Midwifery Council Code, and yet not tell the truth regarding the existence of Santa? Well we can use a bit of legal magic.
A later part of the Nursing & Midwifery Council code states ‘make sure you do not express your personal beliefs (including political, religious or moral beliefs) to people in an inappropriate way’. From a legal perspective, a nurse’s view on the existence of Santa is a personal belief. It is something that they choose to believe. Therefore the first bit of legal magic is that a nurse’s thoughts on Santa’s existence are a ‘personal belief’ and covered by the personal beliefs paragraph.
Another paragraph states nurses must ‘treat people with kindness, respect and compassion’. From a legal perspective ‘respect’ would encompass the person’s beliefs and it could be argued that you cannot respect someone’s beliefs if you challenge them.
So if we put the two bits of legal magic together, we can see that the nurse’s only recourse is to tell their patient that Santa does exist. Thus ensuring that they are not expressing their personal beliefs and at the same time respecting their patient’s beliefs.
So whilst we might think that parents jump through creative hoops to ensure the Christmas magic stays alive for their children, let’s spare a thought for the hundreds of professional “elves” up and down the country doing their bit too. And maybe for the lawyers who use their legal magic for the benefit of all concerned!