Fantasy is a normal and healthy part of development. Between 3-8 years, children’s imagination blurs the line between fantasy & reality, making it easy for them to believe. Santa belief is at its height during this time of a child’s life.
However, Santa Claus can be controversial among parents. “It’s wrong to lie to my children.” “What happens when they find out?” Despite these concerns, it’s important to remember that the premise of Santa is really quite lovely. It’s a shared cultural commitment to kids. A commitment to bring magic & happiness into their lives.
How we engage in the myth is what’s important. Some take the idea too far: forcing children to sit on Santa’s lap or using it as a threat. Using Santa as a disciplinary method sends mixed messages. Children become confused about whether he is here to spread joy, or punish them for their misdeeds.
Above all, parents should respect their child's imagination & let them take the lead. If your child initiates a question, be honest. If they ask whether Santa is real, a response like “Santa is a wonderful idea about someone who wants to bring happiness to children" could work for you.
When children discover the truth, there are thoughtful ways to support them. Let them know it’s okay to feel sad & grieve their loss. However, the research shows that for most children, the discovery is not traumatic. Instead, many view it as having solved a logic puzzle (How does he get to every house in the world?)
One way to keep Santa special post-‘discovery’ is to facilitate the transition from believer to cultural co-conspirator. Discuss with them ways they can help bring the magic to younger family members or friends. Talk about how Christmas time is about helping the less fortunate. After all, Saint Nicholas helped the poor by offering them money and gifts. What a beautiful opportunity to talk with your children about the importance of generosity & kindness?
No matter how you celebrate the holidays or which traditions you embrace, enjoy the magic of the season, may it be merry and bright.
References: Woolley 1997; Anderson & Prentice 1994; Deci et al 1999