Should We Ruin Our Kids’ Christmas By Telling Them Santa Isn’t Real?
We could just let their friends do it…
One of the big problems of being a writer is that your children always want to know what you’re working on. Sometimes that can be fun and inspire great dinner table conversations. Other times, it’s not as fun. As I write this piece, I have to make extra sure they don’t peek over my shoulder, because they both still believe in Santa Claus.
I have two kids, Henry and Rose. They’re both nine. Henry’s biological, Rose is adopted. They’re whip-smart, imaginative, playful and generally a delight to be around. It’s pretty much guaranteed there’ll be a lot of stuff under the tree for them this year, like there is every year.
Until recently, when either of them lost a tooth, they’d reliably wrap it up in paper, write a note, and tuck it under their pillow for Mabel the Tooth Fairy or Carl the Tooth Pixie, who would take it away and leave a note of his or her own and a little bit of cash.
Henry lost a molar a few weeks ago and declared he didn’t want to leave it for Carl. We managed to persuade him to write one last letter so the imaginary pixie didn’t feel abandoned. Rose lost a tooth at around the same time and wrote a final missive to Mabel as well.
It’s important to note my kids didn’t half-ass all these letters over the years as ways to get cash. They always wrote long, questioning notes, asking about the Tooth Fairy’s and Tooth Pixie’s families, their favorite foods, what life was like where they lived. Henry and Rose interacted with these imaginary creatures as if they were real. It took my wife, Sara, all night to write letters back in ridiculously tiny handwriting.
So why did Henry decide he was done with this, and why did Rose follow suit? It’s hard to say. They’ve definitely heard people at school talking about how the Tooth Fairy isn’t real (and Henry once got in a pretty furious argument over it). I think part of them still wants to believe in it, but the peer pressure might be a little too much.
We still haven’t told them Carl and Mabel were actually us. Maybe they know, maybe they don’t.
Christmas is coming, and Sara and I can’t help but think Santa’s going to be the next fantasy persona cut from our kids’ roster.
Studies by University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley found that belief in Santa tends to peak in children around age five. Same with the Tooth Fairy. By nine, only about a third of kids believe. Once they’re in their tweens, you’re hard-pressed to find even one who still buys into the fantasy.
Are we screwing up our kids up by letting them enjoy the myth long after its sell-by date?
Maybe not. Woolley believes disproving Santa for themselves is actually good for kids. She argues the process of debunking Kris Kringle is a gradual one, happening over time as kids improve their logical and deductive reasoning.
In addition, the feeling of empowerment kids can get by figuring it out can be very worthwhile. It helps them learn that sometimes people perform kind acts, like giving gifts without expecting thanks for them. That generosity is key to the very spirit of Christmas.
Not all psychologists agree. Dr. David Kyle Johnson has made a little cottage industry of persuading parents to stop telling their kids about Santa Claus. His book “The Myths That Stole Christmas” devotes an entire chapter to the “Santa Claus lie.”
Johnson argues that telling your kids a knowing falsehood—one they’re bound to discover, in time?—?will damage your credibility. He relates the story of Jay, a grown man who, as a boy, got into an argument at school over Santa’s existence. In front of the entire class, Jay vehemently defended Santa on the grounds that his mother claimed the man in red existed, and his mother wouldn’t lie to him. Then Jay looked up “Santa Claus” in the classroom encyclopedia and read the words “Santa Claus: A fictional character…” He looked to his teacher, hoping she’d discredit Britannica:
“But I could tell by her slumped shoulders and the look in her eye she couldn’t. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I was so embarrassed because my ignorance was revealed in such public display, in front of all my friends. I had said my mother would never lie to me, but clearly she had. Mrs. Stubblefield was apologetic, but I realized that she was in on the deception, too. I seriously still get upset when I talk about it.”
A study published in the Lancet makes the same argument. The authors believe that, in addition to betraying the trust your kids put in you, a good portion of the Santa lie is for the parents’ benefit, not the children. Perpetrating the Santa Claus myth lets adults mentally return to their own childhoods, when they could still believe in magical Christmas visitors themselves.
A 2014 study at the University of California San Diego found that kids who were lied to by parents or authority figures were more likely to cheat and lie themselves. Whether deluding them about Santa contributes to that is still up in the air.
When I talked to people in my generation about what age they were when Santa was debunked, they had a wide variety of stories. Lots of them worked it out on their own. Some had it ruined by family members or other kids in school. And then some had stories that were completely nuts, like my friend Sherry Wong:
“My brother told me that Santa was real; it was just that Santa had died the year before I was born and our parents had not wanted to tell me, so were pretending to be Santa. This made sense to me. I think I was six?”
Some never even believed in Santa at all. A few had, as little ones, watched TV shows depicting adults who were obviously in on the St. Nick scheme. The one common thread running through my friends’ stories is that kids who figured it out for themselves were happier about it than kids who didn’t.
I found out about Santa like a lot of kids do: by spending December mercilessly searching the house for Christmas presents to stealthily tear open and spoil for myself. I don’t think I ever confronted my parents about it, though.
As with most parenting problems, there doesn’t seem to be any one authoritative answer on when kids are ready to stop believing in Santa. I talked to each of my kids individually about the spirit of Christmas, and they had pretty different answers.
Rose, when asked, told a story about how, when we visited Alaska for Christmas last year, she saw one Santa at the reindeer farm and another one at the grocery store on the same day and they looked “really different.” She thinks there are a lot of Santas, and they don’t live up at the North Pole or fly around in a sled. They’re just regular people making other people feel happy around Christmas.
Henry, on the other hand, is still deeply immersed in a fantasy world, despite cutting Carl the Tooth Pixie loose. He’s read all about Santa myths in other cultures and seems to believe they’re all individual supernatural entities with their own agendas. Apparently, Icelandic kids are visited on Christmas Eve by trolls who kidnap and eat them if they’re not good, and to Henry that’s just as believable as a fat guy in a red suit stuffing himself down your chimney. He also claims to believe in ghosts, or at least when it’s time to take out the garbage at night.
The best part is that neither Rose nor Henry is under any great pressure to convince the other. They’re perfectly happy with their individual conceptions of who Santa Claus is. Whether that’s just because they want presents is up in the air.
There will be swag from Santa under the tree this year, and probably for quite a few years to come. I don’t know when Henry and Rose will outgrow their belief, but I’m in no hurry to make them. The world is increasingly drained of magic and wonder, so my kids are entitled to hold onto that for as long as they want to.