As the holiday season approaches, many parents find themselves facing a tricky problem: how to talk about Santa Claus with their young children, especially as those children begin to develop doubts about Santa’s existence. When does a fun, fanciful tradition risk becoming harmful deception? How can parents — who typically play a large and active role in fostering a belief in Santa Claus — ease the transition to disbelief?
As developmental psychologists, we’ve long been interested in such questions, in part because they raise larger issues about the role of imaginative play in the life of a child and how parents might best engage with it. This month we published research from our labs that we believe sheds some light on the matter. While we’re agnostic about whether people should include Santa in their holiday traditions — that’s for each family to decide — our empirically informed view is that learning the truth about Santa Claus does not have to be a distressing experience and can even be a positive one.
Our research consisted of two studies. In the first, we spoke with 48 children, ages 6 to 15, who had learned of Santa’s nonexistence within the previous three years, asking them to characterize the experience. In the second, we surveyed 383 adults, ages 18 to 76, asking them to reflect on their childhood experiences around Santa Claus, including how they felt when they discovered he was fictional.
One of our major findings was that even when the truth about Santa came as a disappointment, it was typically not a lasting one. Although roughly half of the children and adults we spoke with reported feeling some negative emotions, like sadness or anger, those feelings tended to be short-lived, and children often shifted their focus to other aspects of the holiday season that they enjoyed, like gift-giving and family traditions.
Moreover, contrary to what you might expect, about half the children and about 20 percent of adults reported feeling good about discovering the truth about Santa. Some said they were relieved that they finally had resolution to some of their nagging questions. Others reported pride, as if they’d solved a complicated puzzle. Indeed, our research found that people’s emotional responses were less negative upon learning the truth if they felt they figured things out themselves.
Some children figured out that Santa wasn’t real through logical reasoning, such as recognizing the impossibility of traveling by sleigh to millions of homes in one night. Others reported learning through observation, like recognizing that the wrapping paper on Santa’s gifts was also in their parents’ closet. The adults who recalled figuring out the truth more gradually through logical reasoning or observation were less likely to report negative emotional associations with the discovery than were those who learned the truth abruptly or primarily through being told directly, for instance by a schoolmate or an older sibling.
Although we don’t have enough evidence to lay down rules that will guarantee that children take the truth about Santa in stride, we feel comfortable making three recommendations:
First, respect your child’s growing independence of mind. The older your child gets, the trickier it becomes to engage in Santa talk. Children tend to discover the truth about Santa when they are around 7 or 8, although the age varies considerably. In our research, we found that children who were on the older side (closer to 11 or 12) when they discovered the truth were more likely to feel only negative emotions around it.
Second, listen to your child’s questions and make sure you know what question your child is actually asking before you start answering. For example, if your child asks you how Santa fits down narrow chimneys, don’t assume that your choice is either to lie or to give up the game. Consider answering by asking your child what she thinks, talking about what “some people” believe or simply acknowledging that she has asked an interesting question.
Third, even if your child has a negative experience learning the truth about Santa, all is not lost. Some children may well be more sensitive than others to being lied to about Santa. A small subset of the adults we surveyed (about 6 percent) reported negative emotions that lasted more than a year after learning the truth. One explained: “I felt very betrayed by my parents. I didn’t understand how they taught us not to lie, but they’d been doing it for all these years. I thought they were hypocrites and I was angry about that.”
In such cases, parents can soften the blow by acknowledging their child’s feelings and talking about why they have included Santa in their holiday traditions. Some parents invite children to help continue the Santa tradition with others. It may be comforting to learn that, in our research, a vast majority of both the children and the adults — even those who reported some negative emotions upon discovering the truth about Santa — celebrated or planned to celebrate Santa with their own children.
There are lessons here beyond Santa Claus. These same principles apply when parents are trying to figure out how to navigate the wide array of magical thinking prevalent during the early childhood years. Yes, your child may have imaginary friends and believe in the Tooth Fairy — that’s OK. Blurring the line between fantasy and reality is a normal part of being a young kid. But with Santa as with so much else, following your children’s lead, using their questions as the starting point for discussion and being aware of their individual sensitivities can all help to propel a creative and joyful exploration of the world.
Candice Mills (@CandiceMMills) is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Thalia R. Goldstein (@ThaliaGoldstein) is an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University.
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