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December 12, 2017

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Lies about Santa? They could be good for your child.

Developmental psychology suggests that fantastical beliefs in children are associated with positive developmental outcomes. And parents need not worry, children will bust the Santa myth themselves, when the time is right.

Kristen Dunfield, Concordia University

Christmas is a magical time of year, especially for children. Unfortunately, between elaborate Elf on the Shelf staging and fending off questions about Santa, parents are often left wondering how much of the magic depends on them.

Specifically, many parents worry about whether they should encourage their children’s belief in the physical reality of Santa, about the potential impact of lying to them and what to do when their children realize they’ve been duped.

Rest assured, parents, it’s not all up to you. In fact, the best approach involves supporting your kids while they figure it out on their own. They will, and it won’t be as bad as you expect.

As a developmental scientist, I spend most of my time researching children’s trust. I’m interested in how trust develops and what happens when it’s broken. During the holiday season, I spend a lot of time thinking about Santa.

As a proud auntie of three children under the age of four, my Santa musings have taken on a new significance. But, unlike many parents, I see the development of a belief in the physical reality of Santa, and the eventual myth-busting, as impressive achievements to be celebrated, not feared!

Research in the field of developmental psychology suggests that such fantastical beliefs are not actually harmful, but are associated with a number of positive developmental outcomes — from exercising the “counterfactual reasoning skills” needed for human innovation to boosting emotional development.

When kids question the magic

The vast majority of children will at some point believe in Santa. While many children learn these beliefs at home, the cultural support for Santa is so strong that children in households that don’t actively endorse the myth still sometimes believe.

Yet, despite Santa’s impressive marketing strategy, most children will abandon their belief by the age of eight. Though many parents fear this transition, it’s an inevitable part of growing up.

Santa is a mix of mundane and magical qualities. He is a jolly man dressed in red with a snowy beard. He also flies with the help of reindeer, visits all the world’s children in a single night and knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

With age, a child’s thinking develops to the point where they start to notice Santa does magical things that physical objects can’t. This newfound knowledge is evident in the types of questions children are asking.

Younger children are often interested in general details about Santa, like: “Where does Santa live?” Older children are more likely to hone in on Santa’s extraordinary abilities: “How does Santa get around the whole world in a single night?”

Should you bust the myth?

Recognizing these challenging questions for what they are — cognitive development in action — may free some parents from the burden of belief.

If your goal is to extend your child’s belief in the physical reality of Santa, you can respond to the questions with plausible explanations or evidence. This is where NORAD, the online tracker that shows Santa’s progress around the globe on Christmas Eve, can come in handy.

If instead you want to let your child take the lead, you can simply direct the question back to them, allowing your child to come up with explanations for themselves: “I don’t know, how do you think the sleigh flies?”

Finally, if you think it’s time to usher your child into the common adult understanding of Santa as a beloved fantasy figure, you can provide different, disconfirming evidence and explanations.

My Santa myth was busted shortly after the discovery of Santa’s gift tags in my mother’s robe pocket. Regardless of which strategy you choose, it is inevitable that eventually the evidence against Santa will become overwhelming and the belief will become unsustainable.

Lies with good intentions

If you choose to extend your child’s belief in Santa, and your child realizes you have deceived them, how will they respond?

If Santa’s elves make handmade toys, how does he deliver electronics? And what does this do to the magic of Christmas for children from poorer families?

As it turns out, probably pretty well. In a study examining children’s reaction to discovering the truth about Santa, parents generally took the transition much harder than their children, who actually felt quite positive about the discovery.

And why wouldn’t they? Santa is one of countless things children learn through the testimony of others. Because we rely on others for so much of what we know, humans are surprisingly well-equipped for the task. They evaluate both the source and content of the information they have received in light of their existing knowledge and their memory of past interactions with the source.

This means that, when compared to all of the reliable information that parents share with their children over their lives, it is highly unlikely a single lie will cause irreparable damage.

Children are also discovering the truth about Santa at around the same time they are starting to understand that some lies, like Santa lies, are told with good intentions.

Why Santa is for small gifts

Believing in impossible beings such as Santa is a special kind of magic available only to children.

Research suggests that fantastical beliefs are associated with a number of positive developmental outcomes. So, if your child is still a believer, feel free to protect that belief.

As your child ages, especially if there are younger siblings in the house, there are creative ways to keep the Santa experience positive, even after their belief in the physical reality of Santa has been abandoned.

Finally, always remember, as children are figuring out how the world really works, that they are going to look to the people and things around them for evidence.

The ConversationIt might be a good idea to give modest gifts from Santa and save the big ones for parents, because no matter what your family income, every child deserves to feel loved by Santa on Christmas morning.

Kristen Dunfield, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Concordia University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Share your comments below.

  • I had to laugh at a 5 y.o. about 10 days before Christmas. I asked her what she had asked Santa for. No way would she tell me. Only reply I could get from her was that Santa already had one at Lapland. I had already got her a Christmas present but might have got her something to go with what Santa brought

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  • at least they will understand that you were the one giving them pressies all along.

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  • We all love fantasy. Why ruin it for our children? I can’t remember how old I was when I asked my Mum if Santa was true…or something like that. Mum’s reply was “what do you think?” (we had a converstation about it many years later) I was convinced for another year. By then the other kids were saying too much at school. Mum then told me not to tell my brother as he is 3 years younger than I am. She possibly may have said the same thing to him he 1st time. I know some parents who give some presents from Santa and a couple from them as “from Mum and “Dad”.

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  • I did the same as Cherz. I told my little girl that the Santas in stores were helpers and the real Santa was St Nick.

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  • I always told my children that all the Santa’s in stores etc where Santa’s helpers.
    Also years ago when my children were younger there was a man that lived on the outskirts of a village in Lapland who would dress up in traditional clothes and ferry toys in his sleigh down to the village at Christmas ..A real St Nick.
    Now Lapland actually has a Santa Village complete with all the trimming, accommodation as well, quite commercial I feel but magical for many I am sure. Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi in Lapland Finland – Arctic Circle …
    https://www.santaclausvillage.info/

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  • A little magic goes a long way and there is nothing wrong in believing in Santa.

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  • Think indeed the best approach involves supporting your kids while they figure it out on their own.
    That fantastical beliefs are associated with a number of positive developmental outcomes, doesn’t amaze me. Till age 7 many kids go through stages of magical thinking, which is all part of the development of our identity and reality.
    A facebook friend of mine shared not so long ago that her 16year old still believes in Santa, which doesn’t sound totally healthy to me.

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  • I was very young when I found out the truth thanks to a blabber mouth Christian who came from a santa free house and decided it was her job to educate every child she knew. I’m still bitter.


    • Not nice at all. I can’t stand people that do this “on purpose”. Respect for the kids zero!!

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  • Santa is part of our childhood just like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Kids are little for such a short time it is good to enjoy while you can. When they dont believe the magic is gone. Our kids while at home continued to believe as if you dont believe you dont recieve. Hubby is a professional Santa and if the kids ask if he is real he throws it back to them and asks what they think 99% say he is the real Santa he is that good kids have changed their minds if they dont think he real go out saying he is.

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  • There’ s nothing wrong with childhood fantasies, some people call it lying. We went for the trifecta here, Santa, Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. It’s fun, the whole family and everyone we knew got in on the act. We wrote letters and sent them to the North Pole, stalked the big guy on Norad and visited him at six different Shopping Centres. Our daughter never twigged that one day Santa was chunky and another day his suit was too big. Santa was jolly, he took present requests and promised things Mum and Dad couldn’t deliver. He gave out little gifts and a photo op was proof that he really did exist. The day our daughter found out Santa wasn’t real (from a snitch at her school), she was gutted, but we still pretend. All of our gifts come from Santa, we still follow him on Norad and most recently, the North Pole has been connected to the NBN so we’re Santa followers on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. What’s the harm? and besides, if you don’t believe, you don’t receive.


    • That’s cute. :-) What is his Facebook account?

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  • I think it’s fine to lie about Santa. It’s part of childhood.

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  • We always loved this tradition in our family. Our daughter was always thinking about Santa, writing him a letter, baking cookies for him.. And the excitement on Christmas morning. Unbelievable. Along the way there were times when she came up from school and told us that she heard other kids saying that Santa didn’t exist. She was maybe in Year 2 or 3. We kind of dismissed what she had heard, because you could see that she wanted to believe. She wasn’t ready for “the truth”. Till at the end of Year 6 (she was 12 thus!) we let her enjoy one last Christmas and on Boxing Day we told her the truth. She was starting high school in the new year and we thought that maybe older kids would have made fun of her, seeing that she still “believed”. She was quite sad and cried a little bit. But she understood why we did it. And then she asked if we can go on pretending he still exists. Why not? And that we did. :-)

    Reply

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