I think it would be safe to assume that almost everyone loves the music, the presents, the family gatherings, and everything else that comes with Christmas. The holiday certainly holds a special place in our hearts, and Santa Claus plays a huge part during the Christmas season. But one of the most significant questions is whether belief in Santa is good for kids.
First, let’s put things into perspective: We would all agree that most children believe in all kinds of things: talking dinosaurs, walking vegetables, sword-wielding turtles, just to mention a few. And to a large extent, it is important for children to believe in the fantastic because it nurtures their imagination and creativity.We take away something precious from our children when we deny them the opportunity to believe in fairy tales or made-up stories because to believe, for a little while, allows them to later on understandmore complex concepts such as symbolism and metaphor. And as growing children question the truth of a story, let them research the stories of real people, like St. Nicholas, for instance, whom the Santa myth is based on.
The nature of the “Santa Myth,” however, requires that children eventually learn the truth, and some may argue that once the truth about the big, jolly white bearded man in a red suit is revealed, it will erode the trust between parent and child. This may seem a logical argument, but on closer examination, it does not hold up. For one thing, the popularity and survival of the Santa tradition itself indicates that it does no harm to children. If most children were indeed traumatized by learning the truth about Santa when they were young, we would certainly not expect them to continue the tradition with their own children. Moreover, children who are raised in a nurturing, accepting environment, and have healthy relationships with their parents are unlikely to become traumatized by the Santa Claus deception, regardless of any negative emotions they might have felt during the initial discovery.
In a study conducted in 1994, interviews with older children found that the average “age of discovery”, past which time a child no longer believes in Santa, is seven years old. This age generally makes reference with Piaget’s stages of development. Jean Piaget, a pioneer of child psychology, conceptualized children’s cognitive growth into distinct, sequential phases, and seven-year-olds happen to be right on the border of two phases, namely the Pre-operational stage and the Concrete operational stage.
During the Pre-operational stage, the ages from two through seven, cognition is limited in two major ways: preoperational thinkers are egocentric, meaning that they are literally unable to see things from another person’s perspective. They naturally believe that everyone experiences the world as they do. Children in this stage are not fully engaged in logical thinking, tending to focus on one aspect of a problem at a time. An example of this can be clearly seen in one of Piaget’s experiments, in which a child is shown two identical glasses containing the same amounts of liquid. When one amount is poured into a different looking container, such as one that is narrower, and the child is asked which contains more liquid, the child will almost always pick the narrower glass, despite having seen the transition of the liquid to the narrower glass. The focus is on appearance, not the stability of matter, and so the child is led to an erroneous conclusion based on the limits of his logic.
By around the age of seven, the child typically enters the Concrete Operational Stage. This is when the child’s brain “decenters;” cognition becomes less egocentric, and children are able to place themselves into other peoples’ shoes. Logical thinking and problem solving kick into gear. Whereas the three year-old might not think of the question how Santa gets to every single house in the world in one night, or how a fat man can fit down a tiny chimney, a seven year-old definitely will.
The 1994 study also reported that majority of the seven-year-olds interviewed came to the conclusion on their own that Santa wasn’t real, instead of being told so by their parents. And while most children reported feeling saddened by the truth that Santa did not exist, the emotions lacked intensity, and were generally short-lived. It was even discovered by the researchers (Surprise! Surprise!) that parents experienced more sadness when they learned that their children no longer believed in Santa.
Santa can be an important learning tool for kids: that it is a joy to think and wonder about fantastic things just beyond the real world. Santa also symbolizes Christian values such as kindness, generosity, forgiveness—every child soon realizes that even if they had not been perfect all year, Santa comes through, and that Santa brings gifts to all children.
Obviously, leading your kids to believe that their wish list is a demand list, or focusing exclusively on Santa, or using it to threaten or manipulate children, is not helpful. But allowing children to embrace Santa while they are young can allow them to experience what it means to give and receive. Rather than replace make-believe with rational, hard facts (“There is no such thing as Santa. He does not exist!”), children can be told stories of Father Christmas or St. Nicholas, someone who gives without expecting anything in return, who loves children—and who brings you just one present, not a sleigh-load of gifts.
And the Santa myth is certainly grounded on truth — after all, St. Nicholas was a real, living and breathing person who gave gifts and money to the poor. “It’s a real story, it’s a real value and it’s something that inspires children,” says Dr. Matthew Lorber, a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “That’s the spirit of Christmas, though today’s consumer culture may have drifted from that spirit a bit,” he added.