Where were you when you discovered the “truth” about Santa Claus? Some parents remember feeling betrayed by the first “lie” of childhood. Others felt liberated at their first “aha moment”. The revelation might be a gradual unraveling or an unexpected surprise. But the moment of truth floods parents’ memories with strong feelings ranging from disappointment and sadness to cleverness and pride.
Santa Claus is a pivotal experience in child development as children grow, change and learn. It is coming-of-age tradition to be valued with all of its emotional complexities.
Are you lying to your child?
Developmentally, before the age of 7 years old, children engage in magical thinking. If they can imagine it, it can be true. The examples are endless: x-ray vision, fairy dust to help them sleep, superhero power, monsters under beds, talking teapots or flying reindeer. Adults cannot change how children think. As a matter of fact, adults teach children important concepts and values through children’s imagination.
No, you are not lying to young children by telling them stories. Stories are meaningful ways for children to learn and to remember. After the age of 7, children begin to understand the moral dimension of truth-telling and will begin to ask questions if they want to know the “truth”. This is the time to be prepared with an answer that honors your child’s new insight – asking your child what she thinks it means to be “real”, stating “larger truths” like Santa lives in our hearts or that Santa is a feeling. Or, you might read the 1897 editorial from the New York Sun, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”.
Who’s that man in the red suit at the mall?
Children start the notice the contradictions in the story before they want to know the whole truth. How can Santa Claus be at every mall at the same time? How can Santa deliver toys to all the children in the world in one night? And, of course, how does he deliver toys to houses without chimneys?
For those children who favor logical-mathematical thinking, one contradiction may be enough to blow-up the entire story. While others will create elaborate explanations to justify the inconsistencies. Follow your child’s lead. Cognition and emotional development are intertwined. If your child is satisfied hearing that the mall Santa works for the North Pole Santa, so be it. If the questions keep coming, your child may be trying to solve a real-world puzzle and won’t be satisfied until he does.
Children who “believe” are very good at filling in the missing pieces they need – whether it’s a skinny Santa with a fake beard or getting a different toy under the tree. The magic is in the believing not in a perfect match to reality.
Santa Claus in a religiously diverse community
Similarly, young children are completely absorbed by their own story-making. It doesn’t matter if children who believe in Santa Claus go to school with children who do not celebrate Christmas. Children’s hearts are filled with the traditions and rituals of their own family life. A diverse community like South Florida can celebrate everyone’s holiday story – be it the miracle of the oil, a baby born or a jolly ol’ fellow.
Children don’t have to be protected from different beliefs. Parents can be ready with open-ended answers like they are with the challenging questions mentioned earlier. Santa knows to come to your house because you have a Christmas tree but Jewish children get other presents from people who love them for Chanukah. When in doubt, ask the kids. You will be positively surprised at the ways children explain religious differences according to their own childhood logic.
Be a trusted caretaker of childhood legends. Try not to “use” Santa Claus for your own adult-purposes. Santa Claus loves children, not just “good children”. No child should go to sleep on Christmas Eve fearful of whether Santa will remember him or her. And no child should pretend to believe in Santa Claus to get more presents.
Enjoy the magic of the season! If you’re so inclined, climb onto the rooftop on Christmas Eve with some reindeer bells. But remember, most children have heard the pitter patter of reindeer hoofs loud and clear without any extra effort from parents.