Creative Child

The Santa Claus Question

by Erin J. Bernard on Dec 8th, 2014

What should you tell your kids about the man in red?

Back in 1897, a little girl named Virginia wrote a letter to the The (New York) Sun asking whether Santa Claus was real.

Every parent wrestles with the question – and its implications – at some point: is the Santa myth a harmless way to add a little magic to childhood, or is it a dishonest cultural ruse?

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” came the newspaper’s now-famous response – because some things can't be seen but only felt, and because his spirit lives in every act of love and generosity.

The sentiment’s sweet, but it’s unlikely to sate the curiosity of modern kids. Should you tell your children that Santa Claus is real? The experts weigh in.

 

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Yes

… Because it could make them smarter. University of Oregon researcher Dr. Marjorie Taylor has found that fantasy-based play aids a child’s emotional and cognitive development: a 1997 study published in Child Development found that children who engaged in fantasy play were actually better able to differentiate fantasy from reality than those who didn’t. Further research published in Developmental Psychology in 2004 found that as children grew, those who’d believed in imaginary companions scored higher on tests of emotional understanding and self-perception.

 

… Because most of their friends celebrate Santa. A 2011 AP-GfK poll found that Santa love is on the rise in America, no matter a family’s income or religious preference: two thirds of parents said they incorporated Santa Claus into holiday rituals, with 71 percent describing him as important, up from 58 percent in 2005. A sense of belonging is crucial for kids, and pushing the realism agenda too hard may leave your little ones out in the cold when it comes to time-tested winter rituals like composing letters to Santa and comparing holiday wish-lists with classmates and friends.

 

Cookies for Santa

No

… Because it’s deceptive and confusing. In a 2009 op-ed column published in The Baltimore Sun, Dr. William Irwin argued that parents should skip the Santa myth because it damages kids in several ways: it’s simply not true, and kids feel betrayed and embarrassed when they find this out; it compromises parent-child trust; and it discourages critical thinking by promoting blind belief over the careful weighing of evidence. We encourage our kids to tell the truth at all times, but that lesson is undermined when parents don’t model the same value in their own actions.

 

… Because they probably already know the truth anyway. According to the AP-GfK poll, the median age at which modern adults stopped believing in Santa Claus was 8, and the fantasy may well abate much earlier today. A 2009 study by University of Texas at Austin researchers found that the Santa myth peaked at age 5, with 83 of little respondents espousing belief. By 7, the number began to decline, and was down to a third by age 9. Belief appeared to decline as a child’s ability to piece evidence together increased, which meant the question often resolved itself. Why stress about the Santa myth when the gig may well already be up?

 

Sources:

“The Relation between Individual Differences in Fantasy and Theory of Mind”

“The characteristics and correlates of fantasy in school-age children: imaginary companions, impersonation, and social understanding”

The AP-GfK Poll, December, 2011 

“Yes, Virginia …” 

“Sorry, Virginia …”

“The Development of Children’s Ability to Use Evidence to Infer Reality Status”

Erin J. Bernard is a freelance writer, editor, and photographer from Portland, Oregon. Before becoming a writer, Erin worked as a nanny and an ESL classroom teacher. She taught English at a Montessori school in Mexico and then ran an after-school language program in South Korea. Erin is the editor of the parenting guide, “Instructions Not Included: A Pediatrician’s Prescription for Raising the Best Kids on the Block,” written by Irwin H. Berkowitz, MD.

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