I still remember sobbing the first year I found out that there was no such thing as Santa. I was one of the children who believed wholeheartedly, not paying any mind to peers who told me that parents put all the presents beneath the tree. After all, I told myself, there’s no way my parents would get that many presents! When I asked my mom before the Christmas when I was 9, she turned the question back on me: “Do you think it’s me or Dad, or do you think it’s Santa?” I didn’t want the magic to stop. “Santa?” I said hopefully, and she gently shook her head no. Although I was devastated at first, I soon began to take joy from being in on the secret and helping to create the magic for my younger siblings and cousins. Still, as each of them found out in turn, I saw my own heartbreak reflected in theirs. As a parent of a 3-year-old, I now wonder if there is a right time to tell kids about Santa. I love watching my daughter’s face light up at the idea of the magical man who brings presents, but I know one day she’ll be sad to discover that the myth makes no sense. Of course, the right time will depend on your family and how you’ve taught the tradition of Santa. But we’ve got some information and ideas that might make the transition a bit easier for both parent and child.
Is there a right time?
There is no hard and fast “right time” to tell your children the truth about Santa. Some skeptical little ones might come to the realization on their own, whereas others might cling to the belief even when you’re certain they know it isn’t wholly true. There is a wide range in the age when kids realize that Santa is a myth, but a 2017 poll from Saint Leo University found that the average age when people believe it’s appropriate for parents to tell their kids the truth about Santa is about 9 years old (8.95 years old to be exact). Knowing what other parents are doing can be a good guideline for parents who are unsure when to confront the issue.
You might not need to tell at all.
Susan Groner, founder of the Parenting Mentor, says that parents don’t need to worry too much about telling their children the truth. Instead there can be a gradual shift over time. “There is a fine line between the truth and make-believe, but I suggest erring on the latter as long as possible,” she says. “As children get a little older and start to wonder about the reality of it all, there can be an interlude of ‘suspended belief.’ A child may think ‘I’m not really buying into the whole Santa and the reindeer thing, how one rather plump man can slide down the chimney but I’m not going to question it quite yet.’” If your child seems on the fence or you worry they may be too old to believe, just follow their lead. They’ll come to you if they want answers, but if they don’t, they may still be having fun playing along with the Christmas myth, Groner says. “I would never kill that joy with a preemptive conversation of reality,” she says. “That all happens soon enough.”
What if they ask when they’re still very young?
Many parents grapple with the idea of lying to their children when they’re asked directly whether Santa is real. If a 9-year-old asks, he or she might be ready for the answer—but if your 4-year-old asks after hearing on the preschool playground that Santa is not real, you might want to evade the question a bit. “When asked if Santa is real or if you as a parent believe in him, try ‘I like to believe in Santa. It’s fun!’” Groner suggests. Or tell kids that Santa represents the spirit of Christmas. That way you are telling the truth without ruining your child’s belief too soon.
Make kids the next Santa.
If your child discovers that Santa is not real, a good way to help them through the transition is by encouraging them to keep the myth alive for others. Parenting expert Cherie Corso says this is a developmentally appropriate way for kids to work through their grief. “By showing younger people how to be generous, it’s good for their psychological state, for their imagination, curiosity, and believing in a higher being,” she says. If your child has younger siblings or cousins, incorporate him or her into choosing presents for the little ones. If not, let your child be a secret Santa to someone in your family or community. Seeing the recipient delight in the gift their “Santa” brought will teach your child that there really is as much joy in giving as there is in receiving—and that’s what the Santa tradition is all about.