Assistant Professor of Psychology, Concordia University.
Christmas is a magical time of year, especially for children. Unfortunately, between elaborate Elf on the Shelf staging and fending off questions about Santa, parents are often left wondering how much of the magic depends on them.
Specifically, many parents worry about whether they should encourage their children’s belief in the physical reality of Santa, about the potential impact of lying to them and what to do when their children realise they’ve been duped.
Rest assured, parents, it’s not all up to you. In fact, the best approach involves supporting your kids while they figure it out on their own. They will, and it won’t be as bad as you expect.
As a developmental scientist, I spend most of my time researching children’s trust. I’m interested in how trust develops and what happens when it’s broken. During the holiday season, I spend a lot of time thinking about Santa.
As a proud aunt of three children under the age of four, my Santa musings have taken on a new significance. But, unlike many parents, I see the development of a belief in the physical reality of Santa, and the eventual myth-busting, as impressive achievements to be celebrated, not feared!
Research in the field of developmental psychology suggests that such fantastical beliefs are not actually harmful, but are associated with a number of positive developmental outcomes — from exercising the “counterfactual reasoning skills” needed for human innovation to boosting emotional development.
LISTEN: When do you tell the kids Santa isn’t real? Post continues after audio.
When kids question the magic.
The vast majority of children will at some point believe in Santa. While many children learn these beliefs at home, the cultural support for Santa is so strong that children in households that don’t actively endorse the myth still sometimes believe.
Yet, despite Santa’s impressive marketing strategy, most children will abandon their belief by the age of eight. Though many parents fear this transition, it’s an inevitable part of growing up.
Santa is a mix of mundane and magical qualities. He is a jolly man dressed in red with a snowy beard. He also flies with the help of reindeer, visits all the world’s children in a single night and knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.
With age, a child’s thinking develops to the point where they start to notice Santa does magical things that physical objects can’t. This newfound knowledge is evident in the types of questions children are asking.
Younger children are often interested in general details about Santa, like: “Where does Santa live?” Older children are more likely to hone in on Santa’s extraordinary abilities: “How does Santa get around the whole world in a single night?”