Ho, Ho, Hoax: The Psychology Behind The Myth Of Santa Claus

Should kids believe in Santa? When should parents break the news? Surprisingly, psychologists have been asking these questions for over a century.

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We’re not here to spoil the magic of Christmas.

We don’t want to end up on the “naughty” list, and we’re not here to take down the big man in the sleigh. Still, we’re going to attempt to answer one of the most difficult questions that parents encounter during the holiday season: When is it okay to tell your kids that Santa isn’t real? Is it healthy to encourage them to believe in Santa in the first place? And if so, what purpose does it serve?

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According to a 2015 HuffPost survey, about 71 percent of parents with kids aged 10 or under say that at least one of their children believes in Santa Claus. Most parents would agree that this is totally normal; Santa is, after all, a big part of the Christmas experience for young kids.

But at a certain point, that belief starts to fade. Kids typically learn the savage reality by talking to their friends or older siblings, and for some children, the truth is hard to take.

We spoke with several psychologists and social workers, and we found out that many parents have misconceptions when it comes to Santa. For starters…

The “Santa hoax” isn’t exactly harmful. It might even be healthy.

“Parents should never lie to their children about anything,” says Frances Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills psychotherapist who specializes in working with children and families. “However, when it comes to myths like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, many parents want to carry on the tradition by nurturing a gentle belief.”

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The term “myth” is pretty key to this discussion. Cultivating a belief in Santa Claus isn’t lying, per se; while parents are willfully misleading their children, they’re certainly not doing it maliciously. That should help to relieve some of the guilt you might be feeling.

I believe in giving little children all the harmless pleasure they can have. Let them believe in fairy tales and myths.

There are, of course, a few caveats. Some research suggests that rewards for good behavior may actually reduce a child’s motivation to do the right thing, so parents probably shouldn’t frame Santa’s presents as rewards. Likewise, parents shouldn’t use Santa to steer kids away from bad behavior; while the “lump of coal” threat may seem effective in the short term, it can cause anxiety, according to Walfish.

It’s also important to remember that many younger children won’t appreciate a trip to see Santa Claus, as any parent who’s dragged a screaming child away from a friendly mall Santa can attest.

“The reason [for this fear] is the costume, mask, makeup, false beard, rosy cheeks, and deep voice used by Santa,” says Walfish. “Toddlers have not yet mastered the concept of object constancy.”

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Object constancy is the developmental skill that lets us understand that when a person leaves the room, they still exist. For toddlers, exercising this skill becomes more difficult when costumes are involved.

“It’s hard for a young child to imagine that a human man can remain a human person while wearing a costume,” Walfish explains. “In other words, the toddler sees Santa in his costume and believes Santa is a walking and talking alien.”

That sounds fairly terrifying. Still, most kids won’t be too traumatized, and the myth can be positive; it may encourage critical thinking skills, since kids eventually work through the logical leaps in the Santa myth and realize that something isn’t right.

If nothing else, the myth provides for some fun memories. With that said, all good things come to an end. Fortunately for parents…

Most kids will learn the truth on their own.

Kids generally learn about Santa from their friends, siblings, or parents. About half of parents won’t get a chance to have “the Santa talk” with their children—someone else will have beaten them to it.

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“The secret and magic of Santa typically has its own ‘shelf-life,’ as kids interact with each other and share what they’ve learned or deemed to be big news,” says Kriss Shane, a licensed master social worker. “This may mean that your child finds out the secret from someone on a playground.”

That’s a pretty common experience, and it can be fairly traumatic. When kids find out about the Santa myth, they may feel betrayed or ridiculed—and if they’re in middle school, they may experience teasing or bullying. Of course, parents can step in and provide some assurance.

“You can mitigate the situation by explaining the meaning and feeling of the season,” says Shane.

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She suggests shifting the focus away from the myth: “You can say that you wanted to wait to tell them because they have younger friends who might not be ready to hear, and you didn’t want to make them keep this secret from a friend.

“The goal is to bring the child into this secret rather than to make them feel silly for believing the myth.”

When a child starts wondering about Santa, that’s when experts recommend breaking the news.

There’s not necessarily a “right age” to tell kids about Santa. Our experts recommend staying attenuated to the child; as kids develop critical thinking skills, they usually start to unravel the Santa Claus mystery on their own.

“By age 7 or 8, most children wonder out loud and ask if Santa is real,” Walfish says. “It’s up to the parent at that point to respond honestly and openly.”

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Walfish recommends explaining why adults want children to believe in Santa in order to make the experience less traumatic.

“[Say something like], ‘When I was a child, my parents thought it was a fun part of Christmas to teach us about the myth of Santa Claus,'” Walfish suggests. “‘I loved it so much that I decided to share those teachings with my children. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on this family tradition or do Christmas in your own special way.'”

Little children find out soon enough that things are not as they are represented to be, without having it drummed into them from early childhood.

Kryss says that parents don’t need to worry about exposing the myth until it creates actual real-life problems.

“The only time to be concerned is if the child is letting their belief in magic interfere with their daily life,” she says. “For example, if your child behaves better because they want Santa to bring them toys (which you already know they’ll receive), there’s nothing wrong with this.”

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However, Kryss notes that “If your child sobs when making a mistake because they fear disappointing Santa, it is time to help them understand that Santa is an idea and a feeling, not someone judging them.”

Kids might also associate Santa with unattainable gifts (for example, a pony), which can create anxiety; when the gifts don’t arrive, kids might believe that they did something wrong. If these sorts of issues begin to affect the holiday, it’s likely time to sit down with your child and have the talk.

When breaking the news, try to frame the myth positively.

Don’t start by saying, “We lied,” and don’t start with an apology. By breaking the news gently, you can give this difficult childhood experience a more positive spin.

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“If you decide to share the secret, it’s important not to let your child see this as a lie, or even a fib,” Kryss says. “Instead, explain that the magic of the season is based on bringing joy to others. Santa isn’t a lie, he’s simply an example of the holiday spirit.”

Bring the child into this secret rather than to make them feel silly for believing the myth.

“Suggest ‘playing Santa’ together,” Kryss says. “Find strangers to gift gifts, or bake cookies for a neighbor. Help your child write kind letters to family members. Many local religious and community organizations host holiday celebrations that are open to the public, which may also help the child to understand the bigger picture. The goal is to share the concept … that the magic of the holiday season is real.”

At the end of the day, the Santa Claus myth is fairly harmless.

Of course, every child is different, but kids can be perceptive, and they’ll typically resolve the Santa question on their own without much trouble. Pay attention to your parental instincts, and don’t get too concerned if you haven’t noticed any troubling behavior.

If you’re still worried that telling your child about Santa Claus will cause permanent trauma, we’ll leave you with the wise words of a 13-year-old girl. She was part of the first known psychological study of the Santa Claus myth, which was performed in 1896, and she sums up the opinions of our experts pretty wonderfully.

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“Indeed, I do think that young children should be taught to believe in Santa Claus,” the anonymous girl wrote in response to a question posed by researchers.

“In the first place, it is a pretty myth and will give them pleasure and will never do them any harm, unless it is used to frighten them into being good, and even then I think it won’t hurt them to amount to anything.”

“I believe in giving little children all the harmless pleasure they can have,” she continued. “Let them believe in fairy tales and myths, it won’t do them any harm, and little children find out soon enough that things are not as they are represented to be, without having it drummed into them from early childhood.”

It is a pretty myth.

People have been discussing the Santa myth for well over a century, and for the most part, the answer has remained the same: Don’t worry too much, keep Santa fun, and above all else, enjoy the spirit of the season.

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