“Reality will eventually out but there’s so much reality in this life that one of the delights of childhood, and of being a parent, is to spread a little fairy dust occasionally.”
– Emily “Dear Prudie” Yoffe, on when to tell kids about Santa
“No, seriously,” my seven year old daughter insisted from the back seat of the car, “Is Santa—the person-Santa actually bringing toys down our chimney—real?”
My wife and I exchanged rapid fire glances and gestures in the front seat. We had tried all the dodges that had worked in years past; we were cornered. We talked about this potential day for the last two Christmases. Was it here already?! I stalled for time.
“Ask again after church.”
My wife and I had come to the moment every parent dreads; telling the truth about Santa. But, in actuality, based on the research, every parent need not dread it. It’s just as normal as riding a bike or going through puberty. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for kids to believe in the myth…” said Dr. Matthew Lorber, child psychiatrist. “Imagination is a normal part of development, and helps develop creative minds,” but as children acquire a certain amount of logic and reasoning skills, they may figure it out on their own or question the existence of Santa and “questioning what’s real and what’s not is a normal part of mental development,” too.
Stephanie Wagner, a clinical psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center in New York countered Dt. Lorber by saying that the belief in Santa wasn’t directly harmful but, “I don’t think we could necessarily say it’s a good thing,” and much of this is due to the when, why and how a parent builds the myth, delivers the truth, and transitions the child (Lewis, 2013).
“There are many opinions on the merits or the disadvantages of deliberately involving kids in a myth that their parents know not to be true,” according to Wise Geek (2015). If the news is handled poorly by parents, or allowed to be divulged on the school yard “some children…may feel betrayed, angry or lied to by their parents” and that runs the risk of damaging the relationship or at least how the child views Christmas as they age.
“The takeaway is clear,” reported renowned science Journalist Olga Khazan (2014), “There is no way to not traumatize your children,” when dispelling Christmas magic. Even though Khazan was being a bit satirical, I still disagree. Much like with anything else, if parents go in forewarned, prepared and as a team, they have a good chance of experiencing a Christmas miracle to last a lifetime.
Unwrapping the Gift of Data
“Christmas time was always the most fantastic, exciting time of year, and you’d stay up until three in the morning…hear the parents wrapping in the other room but you knew that also, maybe, they were in collusion with Santa Claus.”
– Chris Pine, Actor
First is to attain our scientific neutrality. I’m a big Christmas lover, and I have the potential to become overly emotional when parenting is involved. Thus, I was very concerned about “ruining Christmas” and, as Khazan put it, “traumatizing” my girl. We must remember that the main reason children stop believing in Santa is because Santa is not universal reality. “Of course,” Dr. Lorber said, “many children grow up not believing in Santa, either because they don’t celebrate Christmas or follow traditions of a different culture. And some families who celebrate Christmas don’t raise their kids to believe in Santa…that’s healthy” and they all turn out just fine (Lewis, 2013). Santa may be a large cultural and commercial norm, but he’s not bigger than Christmas. Think about it—how many of us gave up on Christmas once we knew the truth?
Our parental emotionality—our own Christmas baggage—can distort much of our ability to respond in the best interests of our children. Some psychologists even caution parents to watch the lengths that they go to in perpetuating the myth, because “children, who really have a concrete image in their mind, are absolutely devastated when this belief is taken from them” and in retrospect many parents find that they kept up or inflated the practice more for themselves, or to avoid the discussion out of fear, than for the developmental health of their kids (Wise Geek, 2015).
“Interestingly,” Khazan reported, that emotional distortion is quite apparent “when adults are interviewed,” about how long they believed in Santa as a kid. “They say they remember believing for much longer” than the norm for children. “An AP poll from 2011 found that…adults like to believe that they believed for longer than they actually did”.
So, with our emotionality in check and our neutrality strapped on tight, what is the developmentally appropriate average age that children begin to doubt Santa? According to the recent studies of University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley, there is a marked “drop-off in belief in Santa after the age of five.” This corroborated a large study in 1978 finding that “85 percent of 4-year-olds believe in Santa, but only 65 percent of 6-year-olds and 25 percent of 8-year-olds do” (Khazan, 2014).
The Magic Lives Forever
“He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.”
– Charles W. Howard, legendary Santa actor
and founder of the world’s oldest “Santa School” in 1937
Breathe. Let’s breathe and stop comparing our kids’ age to the data. Remember, data is just a guide for parents; we are in control. “I think most parents have a good feel as to when their children can accept the truth,” Dr. Lorber said (Lewis, 2013). We started this Santa thing—hey, wait—we did start it! We started Santa, we get to choose if Santa lives. We get to choose if Christmas Magic is dispelled with the truth about Santa or if it is actually strengthened, deepened and broadened by it.
There are many ways to help our children “feel smart they figured it out” not disappointed, lied to or that the magic left Christmas (Wise Geek 2015). Here’s some ideas.
Build it on Truth: “After all, St. Nicholas was a real person. He became famous for giving gifts and money to the poor, and it’s those values that are important,” Dr. Lorber urged. “It’s a real story, it’s a real value and it’s something that inspires children…that’s the spirit of Christmas, though today’s consumer culture may have drifted from that spirit a bit” (Lewis, 2013). Our children can transition from a belief in Santa the jolly old elf giving presents, to Santa who once was a man who did something great and whose spirit lives on in our present-day actions. That’s not so different from elementary school education on Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and most historical figures who seem near mythological in stature to a seven year old. Their desire for knowledge of the truth about Santa primes them for this understanding.
Wrap it in Family Values: “Christmas brings families together,” Dr. Wagner said, “and the Santa myth reinforces these bonds” (Lewis, 2013). The divide of “the lie” some parents fear, need never be a factor if the idea of Christmas itself—over Santa—is core of the Family Christmas. For families who embrace Christmas without all the religiosity, as I was raised, “parents might consider teaching them how to play Santa and be Santa in their own generous actions” to embrace the family value that Christmas is the season of giving and Santa is an extension of that. Wise Geek notes that Christians may raise their child to see “Santa as the spirit of Christmas and an extension of Christ” giving presents to children on Jesus’ birthday, as my wife and I later raised our child (2015). Children will feel closer to their families and more empowered as “little Santas” living out Christmas magic for those younger than them, rather than disappointed.
Celebrate the Magic: Seriously. Make it as special as the first steps, first words, puberty; any awesome milestone in our children’s lives. When they were born, we welcomed them into the world. As they aged we welcomed into the magic of Christmas and Santa Claus. It doesn’t have to stop now—and it shouldn’t. Welcome them into the true meaning of Christmas, the true spirit of giving. They’ll take their cue from us. Make the time you share the truth with them a precious growth moment and it will be one. Show them that by “playing the Santa’s real game” they’re a part of a great responsibility—so that they don’t blow it for the younger kids!—that we, as parents feel they’re mature enough to handle. Show them that with truth comes true Christmas magic, and remember; it happened for us. We may not believe in Santa anymore, but if we look in our hearts, we find that we believe in Christmas even more deeply as a result.
So, how did my wife and I handle it after church? That’s our family Christmas secret!* But what I will say is that a week or so later we sat together, all joyfully writing lists that said “Dear Santa…” we’ve never done that before. It was inclusive, joyful and indicative of greater magic to come. I’m hoping this is the best Karabin Christmas yet, and I’m truly wishing you the same.
*If you are really curious, or think it might help you with your own kids, just contact me privately and of course, as always, we can chat.
Khazan, O. (2014) When Kids Stop Believing in Santa. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/12/when-do-kids-stop-believing-in-santa/383958/
Lewis, T. (2013) Believing In Santa Is Healthy For Kids, Psychologists Say. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/20/believing-in-santa-healthy_n_448
Wise Geek (2015) When do Children Stop Believing in Santa? Retrieved from: http://wisegeek.com/when-do-children-stop-believing-in-santa.htm#didyouknowout