Answering Children's Questions about Santa
Santa Claus and all the magic he brings are a significant part of many Americans’ lives this time of year. In some ways, parents’ involvement in the tradition is as magical for them as Santa is to children, and inevitable questions about the truth of his existence leave many parents quaking in their boots.
Let’s explore the role of such magical ideas in a child’s life, as well as what it means to gradually let those ideas go, so you are better equipped to answer your child’s tough questions in a meaningful and growth-promoting way.
The Role of Magic
Young children believe if you wish hard enough, your wish might come true. They believe that monsters exist and the Tooth Fairy visits. They also believe their parents are infallible and can make virtually anything happen. Believing in a benevolent, gratifying and protective magical goodness is a necessary part of a child’s being able to gradually accept life’s harder truths, such as frustrations, dangers and the difficult fact that even parents are limited. In most cases, children slowly relinquish their belief in magic as they develop their own internal strength and confidence, which strengthens their ability to cope with life’s limitations.
Santa Claus and Magic
Over time, children must begin to accept that their parents are not magical. The Santa Claus myth buys some time and offers some consolation, as it provides a substitute magical parent who can gratify a child’s desire in an enchanted way. Santa provides children with gifts, but more importantly, the idea of Santa keeps alive the illusion of a magical and protective goodness until a child is ready to face reality with less illusion.
Telling Children the Truth
We often emphasize the importance of being truthful with children. Tales about Santa Claus fall into a special category, however, along with stories about the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. Adults in our society maintain an unspoken pact to preserve the story about these mythological characters as a gift to children. Such “white lies” are on behalf of children, even though there is something in it for us parents, too, since we remember our past belief in Santa and share in our child’s delight.
Helping Children Cope With the Truth
Based on our experiences and that of others, it seems most children only experience temporary sadness or disappointment after learning the truth about Santa. We believe children understand that their parents have their best interests at heart, and that their need for magical support decreases by the time they learn the truth.
Occasionally, children remain sad or resentful. In these cases, it is likely there are other reasons for these feelings. Older children may depend on the safety of the Santa Claus myth because they have not yet developed sufficient ability to bear the frustrations of reality. Others may express sadness about the inexistence of Santa because it represents other difficulties they are experiencing in their lives.
When to Break the News
Sometimes parents don’t have to break the news because their child hears “the truth” from another or figures it out on her own. After all, the concept of Santa is not entirely rational. As logic takes a strong hold in a child’s mind (usually around age 6), she begins to spot holes in the theory.
On the other hand, some children note the illogic, but convince themselves that Santa is real. These children may still need the comfort this myth provides. Then there are children who ask, but don’t really want the answer.
Paying close attention to how your child handles the shift from magical thinking to reality will help you better understand your child’s ability to cope with life’s difficulties.
If your child has questions about Santa’s existence, help him understand the meaning and purpose of his questions. By starting a discussion around the topic rather than simply offering an answer, you can help your child become more thoughtful and reflective.
While losing the magic of Santa is sad, what comes with it is the emergence and growth of your child’s mind as one that can consider and compare what he has heard to what is logical. That emergence is a gift from Santa in and of itself.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.