Parents are often conflicted during the holidays when Santa Claus is ever-present in the media and community. Should the belief in an imaginary, mythical figure be encouraged? How will your child feel when he or she discovers the jolly figure in the red suit carrying a big bag of Christmas presents is not real?
While there are no definitive answers, the following information may help you make the right decision for you and your child.
The Development of Imagination
Between the ages of two and three, children begin developing imagination and engage in some form of play-acting or pretend. Most parents have experienced being served an imaginary meal, and few question whether the child actually believes the food is real.
Researchers agree that imagination is an essential tool children use to learn about things and people they don’t directly experience. Dr. Paul Harris of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says that imagination and role-play appear to have a key role in helping children understand someone else’s perspective: “Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination. The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”
Dr. Jacqueline Woolley at the University of Texas in Austin has conducted a number of child studies on imaginary or mythical characters such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. Her research indicates that children as young as age three can distinguish between reality and fantasy, but lack the ability to accurately assess the difference when presented with available evidence. In other words, children learn by what they see, what they hear from others (testimony), and inference, the latter becoming more reliable as they grow older. Studies suggest that belief in Santa Claus begins around age three, peaks at about five, and declines thereafter, so that by nine, only a third of children still believe.
Magical thinking, such as a belief in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, a “good witch” flying on a broomstick, or animals speaking human languages, involves the ability to construct an alternative world. Research indicates that most four- to six-year-olds think magically in everyday life. This ability is particularly beneficial for children with chronic illness.
In a press release, Eugene Subbotsky, Claire Hysted, and Nicola Jones from Lancaster University’s Department of Psychology said, “Magical thinking enables children to create fantastic imaginary worlds, and in this way enhances children’s capacity to view the world and act upon it from multiple perspectives. The results suggested that books and videos about magic might serve to expand children’s imagination and help them to think more creatively.” In this way, imaginary friends and characters can help children cope with stress.
Benefits of Magical Characters like Santa Claus
Regardless of where the presence of magical or fictional characters originates from, most psychologists agree on the following:
- Fairy Tales and Magical Beings Stimulate Imagination and Cognitive Development. Many believe that children should be encouraged to put their own twists on popular stories to develop their mental abilities and imagination.
- Fantastical Stories Often Contain Useful Moral Lessons for Children. They can help children face and resolve conflicts, and encourage them to resist egocentrism and selfishness.
- Fairy Tales Impart a Sense of Justice. For the most part, these stories portray a world of justice where it’s possible for the weak to prevail over the strong. Their examples can give hope to children and help them confront their own problems with courage and self-esteem.
We do not know whether Albert Einstein believed in Santa Claus as a young boy, but he is reputed to have said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking.” His advice was succinct for adults as well as children: “Read fairy tales, then read more fairy tales.”
The Parental Dilemma
Belief in Santa Claus is perhaps the most controversial of the fantasy figures of magical thinking, being objected to by Christians, non-Christians, and some psychologists. Their objections include:
- Concern That Santa Claus Overwhelms the Christian Holiday. Santa Claus is often viewed by Christians as a secular substitute for the real meaning of Christmas. On the other hand, non-Christians may object to the presence of Santa in public schools on the grounds that it violates the Constitutional separation between church and state.
- Runaway Commercialism. Christians and non-Christians refute the rampant commercialization of the season, claiming (with some cause) that it and Santa Claus were manufactured and perpetuated by cultural elites with invested business interests.
- Lying to Children. Parents often take issue with the need to repeatedly lie to their kids to protect the belief, potentially threatening the parents’ credibility and creating a parent-child barrier in later years. In the December 12, 2012 issue of “Psychology Today,” Dr. David Kyle Johnson, assistant professor of psychology, writes, “Encouraging your children to literally believe the Santa lie is the last thing that encourages critical thinking and effective reasoning in children.” Dr. Johnson recommends telling children the truth.
On the other hand, Dr. Woolley, a child psychologist and researcher at the University of Texas, is less confident that there are long-term consequences for indulging a child’s belief in Santa Claus. She recommends that if you’re comfortable with the idea and your child is excited about Santa Claus, you should encourage the belief.
There’s no particular age at which a child should stop believing in Santa, and according to Jared Durtschi, an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, children often arrive at the truth themselves as they grow older.
Perhaps the best approach is to recognize your child’s doubts, rather than confirming or denying Santa’s existence. In other words, help your child reason out the answer for him- or herself by asking questions: “Is there something you saw or heard that makes you think Santa isn’t real? What do you think?” This is the perfect way to encourage your child to remain open to possibilities that aren’t visible or easily explained, while still encouraging him or her to engage in critical questioning.
As you wrestle with how to handle Santa Claus with your child, consider your own childhood experiences. Do you remember Christmas as a time of joy, and Santa Claus an important symbol? Were you devastated when you learned that Santa wasn’t real? Did you feel like your parents had lied to you? Allow the answers to these questions to guide you as you broach the subject with your own children.
Santa Claus and other fictitious characters play a significant role in the minds of children as they grow into adults. In an age where facts and reality are considered the only important measures, it’s well to remember the words of Sabina Dosani, author of “Raising Young Children: 52 Brilliant Ideas for Parenting Under 5“: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”
Did you believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? What are you teaching your children?