Answering Tricky Questions About Santa
Q. My 6-year-old son, Corbin, tells me that his best friend at school says that Santa Claus is not real. Until now, Corbin has believed wholeheartedly in Santa. He asked me if his friend was right. I didn't know what to say, so I asked him what he thought. He said that his friend was stupid, everyone knows Santa Claus is real. I agreed. Did I handle it well? What do I do next time this comes up? Is it time to break the news?
A. Understanding what Santa means to children can provide guidelines for you and others about how to handle questions, and the topic in general.
The role of magic
Young children believe in magic. They believe that if you wish hard enough things might come true, parents can make virtually anything happen, monsters exist, tooth fairies visit — the list is long. Certainly by the time they are toddlers, even children in the best of environments know that frustration and even danger exist.
A belief in a benevolent, gratifying and protective magical goodness in the universe is a necessary part of their being able to gradually accept life's limitations. In situations in which truly bad things do not happen that prematurely burst this protective bubble, children slowly relinquish most of their belief in magic as they grow in strength and confidence.
Santa Claus and magic
Children have to begin to accept that their parents are not magical, but the Santa Claus myth offers some consolation, as it provides a substitute magical parent who at least once a year gratifies children's desires in a magical way. Santa provides children with gifts, yes, but more importantly, keeps alive the illusion of a magical 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. Parental white lies are not generally really in the child's interest, but mostly result from factors such as parents seeking the expedient and convenient or worrying excessively about causing distress to a child.
Occasionally there are times when telling a child the truth is truly not the best idea. The truth may be beyond a child's understanding or cause so much worry that it would be difficult for the child to carry on and continue developing as he should. Partial explanations often suffice in those situations.
Tales about Santa Claus are in a special category, along with those about the tooth fairy and Easter bunny. Adults in our society have an unspoken pact to maintain the story about these mythological characters as a gift to children. These white lies are on behalf of children, even though parents experience their own joys as they remember their past and see their children's delight.
Do children resent the deception?
Based on our experience and that of others, it seems most children don't experience more than some temporary sadness when learning the truth about Santa. We believe that children understand that their parents had their best interests at heart, and their need for magical support is less by the time they find out the truth.
Occasionally, children remain sad or resentful. It seems that there are reasons other than the particulars of the Santa Claus story that cause these resentments.
Some older children depend upon the safety of the Santa Claus myth because they have not developed sufficient ability to bear the frustrations of reality. For others, being upset about the Santa Claus myth represents other resentments they may have about their life.
When to break the news
Sometimes parents don't have to break the news because their child figures it out or is told by others. After all, the Santa story is not a terribly logical one, and as logic begins to take a strong hold in children's minds (usually around 6), they begin to find the story illogical. On the other hand, some children note the illogic, but still convince themselves that the story is probably true. They still need the comfort from the myth. Some children ask, but don't really want the answer.
We think that you handled the situation beautifully. You bought some time by asking your son what he thought, and that provided you with more information about your child's thinking and emotional readiness. Then you make your best guess on the basis of that information.
In general, 4 years of age is too early to burst the bubble, and by 8, if the myth is continued, it is probably in a child's best interest that it be continued with a twinkle in the eye. Children can tolerate and enjoy make-believe that is subtly identified as make-believe.
On the other hand, children who are clinging tenaciously to the reality of Santa at age 8 or so probably need a more proactive approach from their parents to begin to question this reality and to develop their ability to deal with the ups and downs of life.
You seem like a parent who listens to who your child is and uses your instincts and good judgment. In our opinion, that is about as good magic as there is, and with such support, moving beyond Santa Claus will eventually be a seamless process for your child.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood Development is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. The specific question may be a composite or illustration of questions families ask.
To submit a question about children's emotional development and behavior, send an e-mail to email@example.com with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.