When Jack was eight, he told his mom, Susan Stoddart, that he was wondering if the presents under the tree came from his parents. “It was a very positive conversation. We talked about the values Santa represented and the idea of Christmas spirit.”
Whether it’s the logistics of delivering millions of gifts with a reindeer-powered sleigh all in one night, or the sheer proliferation of jolly old elves in shopping malls and department stores, kids begin to have doubts at about age seven, explains Claude Cyr, a professor of paediatrics at the Université de Sherbrooke, in Quebec.
That’s because there’s a huge developmental leap in how kids think at this stage. Younger children engage in magical thinking: Santa can see children being bad or good; Santa can slide down all those chimneys because, well, he’s magic! At about age seven, however, children begin to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. They are becoming concrete thinkers, more concerned with right and wrong, with what’s true and what’s a lie.
So how can parents handle the questions? Children want us to tell the truth when they ask if Santa is real, says Cyr, but responding in a way that allows for a conversation can open a window on a child’s view of the world. “I usually send the question back: ‘What do you think?’ Listening to their response is more important than the answer we might give because it encourages them to express hopes, dreams and fears.”
That’s what Margarett Sample did when her two boys were young. “I always found asking ‘What do you think?’ let me know whether or not they were ready to stop believing. If they said, ‘I think he’s real,’ I’d respond, ‘I think you’re right.’” If, on the other hand, her boys said, “I don’t think he’s real, I think it’s you,” Sample talked about how the spirit of Santa — of generosity, kindness, magic and fun — was real.
Cyr takes another approach to the question. His response is to say: “I am not sure because I’ve never actually seen him. But it would be nice because he seems like a great person!”
It’s not unusual for kids to go through a period of “ambivalent belief,” says Cyr, often because they don’t want to betray their parents. Kevin Sibley had questions, but wasn’t ready to let go of Santa. The six-year-old came home from daycare upset because an older girl had spilled the beans. Kevin told his mom, Corina, that he’d agreed with his friend only because that seemed the only way to get her to stop bugging him about it. “That upset him because he still wanted to believe despite the doubts he had,” explains Sibley. “I told him that he would always have to look to his own heart and choose to believe what seemed right to him. He was much relieved and said he still believed in Santa. It’s come up again,” says Sibley, “but it no longer upsets him. He just lets me know how he handled it — usually he walks away or just says, ‘OK,’ and moves on!”
One research study found that children tend to feel quite proud of having left Santa behind, while their parents tend to feel sad about it. Not Gabrielle Bauer, whose daughter made the leap at age six. “I didn’t feel the pangs of wistful sadness that most parents have when their kids stop believing,” says Bauer. “Quite the contrary; I was pleased and proud that she had the abstract reasoning skills to figure it out so early.”
As kids pass this milestone, perhaps our momentary wistfulness can be alleviated by encouraging the newly enlightened to become one of Santa’s many helpers. “When my kids decided he wasn’t real,” says Sample, “I made sure they understood that they were now part of creating the magic for younger children.”
Is there any benefit to believing in Santa?
While experts have debated the ethics of the cultural practice that reinforces the belief in Santa Claus, most agree it does no harm. British psychiatrist Lynda Breen says there’s evidence to suggest that it may actually benefit kids. “The tale of Santa Claus is a powerful tool that may serve to nurture social and cognitive development, particularly in a technological society where children mature earlier,” she wrote in a recent article.
Studies show that belief in Santa encourages imagination, kindness and co-operation; promotes family bonding; and increases the awareness of the needs of others. Just take a look at children’s letters to Santa: Quite often they contain wishes for someone else, including the poor and the sick.