When Do You Tell Your Child That There Is No Santa?

The decision to introduce your child to the belief in Santa Claus is a personal choice and one that affects your entire family—parents and child. The decision should not be based on whether or not it is politically correct; neither should it be an ethical, cynical, commercially-oriented or anti-religious choice. However you, as an adult, feel about Christmas and its realities, remember Christmas is still an important childhood occurrence.

By Thery McKinney

There is a large social and economic division that becomes more apparent during the Christmas season than any other time of the year. It is a hardship for low income and no income families to deal with Christmas. Realistically there are charity organizations that donate food and toys to needy families, but it is difficult to explain to children why Santa didn’t bring them all that they wanted on Christmas Eve.

Believing in Santa Claus becomes harder with each passing generation. In our present day United States society, Christmas is a big social event. Santa Claus shows up in shopping malls, charity and party events. Children start to question the feasibility and practicality of Santa. After all, not everyone has a chimney in their house (and what happens when you live in an apartment?); just how does Santa manage to get totally around the world and visit every household? What about other religions that do not celebrate Christmas? These inquiries and many more can tax our adult patience, but there are plausible answers that can appease their curiosity. A child’s imagination can make even the silliest, nonsensical notions come true.

According to Dr. Benjamin Siegel, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine:

Kids up to four, five, six, and seven live in what we call fantasy life magic years. […] They are influenced by what they see and hear around them. They get very excited about characters in their lives that have special meaning to them.

Those characters include superheroes, monsters, animals and even Santa. And Santa Claus isn’t the only story we perpetuate with children. How about the Easter Bunny? Folklore tales like John Henry and Paul Bunyan? Even the story about George Washington and the cherry tree…

Apparently telling a child that Santa Claus doesn’t exist seems to be quite controversial among adults. Many adults worry about ending childhood fantasies. Do you remember how you felt when you discovered Santa Claus was really a family member dressed up? Did it destroy your faith in your relatives? Children can deal with divergent answers to life’s mysteries without traumatic repercussions. Children may naturally be disappointed and/or upset to varying degrees upon learning certain “truths.” Dr. Siegel says that most kids know by 7 or 8 years old that Santa isn’t real, and they survive “unscathed.”

But if this is such a bad dilemma, then why is Santa Claus a story that is told the world over? Children love to hear how different cultures celebrate Christmas and other holidays. Santa has different names and different looks all around the world. He has different helpers and in some cultures they don’t have Santa at all.

Historically the “myth” of Santa Claus began as a fact. It basically originated when one man with a big heart wanted to help others. Whether you call him Sinterklass (Dutch), Christmas Old Man (Chinese), or Christtindl (German), there are hundreds of Santas around the world and have been for hundreds of years.

Your approach to telling the “truth” about Santa Claus to your children does require care and sensitivity. Some children are actually more upset that you’ve lied to them than finding out that there is no Santa, or tooth fairy, or Easter Bunny. There are suggestions on how to handle this disappointment, but why not first assess the values of these fables and whether these stories encourage positive attitudes? Decide whether or not such stories give your child something to cherish as he or she grows up, whether it gives you and your child shared childhood memories. Remember that disclosure about Santa Claus will be only one of the many times that you will be bringing reality into your child’s life. How are you going to deal with this situation?

Here are some helpful scenarios (suggested from wikiHows):

1. Find out what has prompted their questions.

Maybe they heard something at school or maybe some part of the story is starting to seem implausible. This is actually a positive developmental step in their childhood. Knowing their reasons for asking questions will help you answer them more appropriately.

2. Ask what your child believes.

Just because your child is asking questions doesn’t necessarily mean that they are emotionally ready to understand the “truth.” Asking “Well, what do you think?” will give you an idea of what they actually need to know at their level of comprehension.

3. Tell the “truth.”

Adjust your replies to suit their degree of acceptance. Often they are looking for reassurances and are not really ready to deal with reality.

4. Deal with your child’s emotional responses.

If your child feels betrayed by you, you need to apologize in such a way that doesn’t change their confidence in you. Some children might get angry. You can comfort them with explanations that the story of Santa embodies the spirit of giving and what giving presents at Christmas is all about. Remind them of the joy and the long history of this tradition and that now it is their turn to uphold and spread this tradition. Maybe you have happy, joyful, silly, or sad Christmas family stories that you can share.

5. Explain that Santa embodies the real spirit of Christmas.

Everyone can be Santa. This magical aspect lives inside everyone. You can keep Santa alive in your heart and for as long as you want to do so. Discuss the times when you do nice things for other people and the good feeling that results.

6. Recruit them to become one of Santa’s helpers.

Santa’s helpers are the ones who help Santa fill the stockings and arrange the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve while everyone else is sleeping. Pretending can be such fun.

7. Talk to them honestly.

You could let them know that rather than “telling a lie,” it is more like continuing a beautiful tradition that you enjoyed as a child, and you wanted them to have that experience. Now that they’re so “grown up,” they can see the difference; and it is their turn to keep this “secret” for the younger children to enjoy.

Eventually all children do realize that there is no Santa. The question is how long do you want to continue with the Santa tradition? How will you handle the transition so your child will understand and appreciate the Christmas celebration? Christmas is the magical time to enjoy and cherish the season and make lasting, loving memories no matter how old you are.

Photo: USACE Europe District via Flickr cc

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