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Another Christmas season means another year of parents wrestling with the conundrum of what to tell their children about Santa Claus.
While in some respects he is similar to other fantastical creatures like fairies or mermaids, Santa is distinct because adults go to great lengths to convince children that there is a literal being that lives in the North Pole and travels the world in a magical sleigh every year. This isn’t just a choice for individual families, it’s a society-wide campaign. The U.S. Postal Service collects letters to Santa. America’s aerospace defense command tracks his path through the skies. Even Apple’s digital assistant Siri won’t give a straight answer to the question “Is Santa real?”
As long as the modern myth of Santa has existed, adults have been trying to find out how it might be affecting children. The first known psychological study of kids’ views on Santa was conducted more than a century ago, in 1895, and academic research on the topic continues today. It’s revealed some remarkable things; for example, the age when children stop believing is relatively consistent — about 8 years old. The effort parents put into promoting the myth really does seem to influence how deeply their kids believe, but the discovery that Santa isn’t real may be harder on parents than on their kids.
Sadly, no definitive answer has emerged to the big question: Are we harming our kids by lying to them about Santa?
Why there’s debate
The case for debunking the Santa legend typically centers around the belief that it’s wrong to lie to children, even about something as positive as the magic of Christmas. Advocates for telling the truth say kids’ trust in their parents can be irrevocably damaged when they inevitably realize they’ve been misled. There is also criticism concerning the lessons that belief in Santa teaches, like the idea that good behavior is only worthwhile if there’s a reward.
But many child development experts say there’s little evidence that children experience any lasting harm from the revelation that Santa isn’t real. Others argue that the Santa myth, beyond just being a lot of fun, can even benefit a child’s development by stoking imaginative thinking, providing chances to use deductive reasoning and showing them the merits of generosity.
A number of experts argue that there can also be a middle ground, in which parents emphasize the magic of Santa but avoid perpetuating the idea that he’s an actual person living in the North Pole. Some say the best strategy is for kids to take the lead and for adults to serve as guides as their concept of Santa evolves over the years until they eventually come to the truth themselves.
Lies about Santa teach children they can’t trust their parents
“[Children] are curious about the world, want to know about it, and trust their parents to provide them with accurate information. When we tell them the Santa Claus lie, we betray that trust.” — David Kyle Johnson, philosophy professor, to Popular Science
Decades of research have shown no lasting harmful effects from the Santa myth
“There is no scientific evidence that finding out the truth about Santa causes children any distress or makes them doubt whether their parents are trustworthy. Some kids don’t even tell their parents that they’ve figured it out — they understand that even parents get joy out of the Santa myth, and so children sometimes let their parents hold on to the holiday magic for a few more years.” — Vanessa LoBue, Psychology Today
Santa teaches kids a perverse lesson about the sources and reasons for generosity
“Believing in the big man in the red suit is not our friend when it comes to discipline. But he could be something better — not a threat but an idea to help stoke our children’s imagination and empathy. If Santa exists, we can leave the goodwill to him. But if Santa is something we all create together, then it’s up to each of us to be Santa to each other.” — Matt Beard, The Guardian
Kids benefit enormously from the Santa legend
“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.” — Kristen Dunfield, Salon
Santa is fun, but he belongs in the category of other imaginary beings
“We should continue to share stories of Santa as part of the Christmas tradition, just keep him in the same place as Clifford and Barney, Elsa and Anna, Spider-Man and Scooby-Doo: in our imaginations.” — Judi Ketteler, NBC News
Keep Santa, but get rid of the concept of naughty and nice
“In Santa’s eyes, you’re either ‘naughty’ or ‘nice.’ This doesn’t capture the complexity of humans, what they’re really like. You’re not either naughty or nice, you’re embarking on this journey of life, through the challenges, making mistakes, trying your best with the skills and brain development, the upbringing, the temperament you have.” — Chazz Lewis, early childhood educator, to Slate
The Santa myth can be very hurtful to poor children
“Kids from low-income families learn early on that life is cruel and unfair. … Hoping that Santa will bring you something — anything — for Christmas may be the one sliver of hope you have in an otherwise bleak holiday season. But seeing that Santa gave other kids half the toy store while he may have skipped your house completely only reinforces your feelings of being ‘less than’ other kids.” — Bobbi Dempsey, USA Today
Parents should support children as their beliefs about Santa evolve over time
“I sincerely believe you don’t have to lie. Your child’s concept of ‘Santa’ will mature as they do. If your position is to help guide them through the developmental stages of Santa, of understanding that love and kindness are their own special magic, and that magic looks different at different stages of life, you aren’t deceiving them at all.” — Kristene Geering, child development expert, to PopSugar
Children don’t think about fantasy and reality in the same way adults do
“Young children have this ability to know that something is mythical, but yet experience it vividly at the same time. They recognize that fantasy and reality are different worlds, but they think the border between them might be porous. Even when kids in some sense believe in Santa Claus, they recognize that he’s in this separate category.” — Alison Gopnik, psychologist, to the New York Times
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty images