Determining the right time to tell your kids the truth about Santa (if ever) is a tough decision that many parents are unsure about. So when I received the below message from a concerned mum, I thought I'd share my take on it...
Hi Dr Justin,
I made the decision some time ago that I would never lie to my children if they asked me the truth about Santa, but I certainly wasn't expecting this question to come up any time soon. So when my 5 year old son (who isn't even at school yet) asked me straight up last week 'mummy is Santa real?', I was taken aback and put on the spot. I told him the truth. He didn't seem too fussed. He just asked who bought the presents. I told him that I did and he was happy with that.
Since then, I have told friends and family and they've been absolutely horrified that I've told him the truth. I've been accused of ruining the magic of Christmas for him. And I've had friends upset as they're concerned my son will tell their children.
Did I do the right thing? Have I ruined Christmas for my son? Have I made him grow up too fast? Or will he appreciate my honesty?
Dr Justin responds:
Children get curious about Santa and other myths around the age of 5-7 years. And frankly, if they’re old enough to be wondering about it, they’re probably old enough to hear it straight. (Uhhh… spoiler alert: Santa is a joyful piece of folklore.)
The argument against telling the truth about Santa
Those who argue in favour of focusing on the fiction of the festive season claim that kids will look forward to Father Christmas visiting. It wouldn’t be exciting if it weren’t for Santa. It is also a simple way to manipulate children into behaving well. Knowing an invisible and benevolent gift-giver is watching can keep lots of kids in line. And so they argue that we should lie to our children about the jolly old fellow.
But… there’s a problem
However, the idea that children will only enjoy Christmas if they have Santa to look forward to fails the logic test. Knowing the truth about Santa doesn’t make Christmas less excitable, enjoyable, or less anticipated. Both children and adults can be excited by what they know is fantasy. Every time that we read a book or watch a movie, we suspend reality and enjoy it. Similarly, kids play make-believe games and find tremendous joy (like mums and dads, or doctors and nurses). They know it isn’t real but that only adds to the enjoyment. Some Aussie evidence points out that children with rich fantasy lives are better at understanding the boundaries between fact and fiction.
And the idea of using such a coercive strategy to manipulate the way our children behave is ineffective and potentially harmful, morally and scientifically. After all, if they’re only behaving a certain way to get a goody, how will they behave once the goody is unavailable, or once the surveillance they’re under disappears.
The argument for telling the truth about Santa
The main argument against teaching your children to believe in Santa is that it is a lie. Evidence clearly points to deceit as devastating for our relationships with our children. Lying to our children has been shown, in several studies, to reduce the extent to which our children trust us. But… that’s for heavy stuff like divorce, debt, and other dramas. There isn’t any evidence I’ve seen that lying about folklore that the whole community accepts and endorses hurts our kids.
So what do you do?
I’m tempted to say that you should teach your kids about the background of Saint Nicholas. But apparently scholars think he was a fictional character too.
You could encourage your child to think critically about the reality of Santa. Can a man really ride through the sky with reindeer pulling a sleigh, visiting every home in the world in one night? Can he know everyone’s behaviour? Can he really get down the chimney? Can he truly eat that many cookies in one night?
Or you could just tell them the truth about Santa. Tell them why the Santa myth exists. Explain the background. Tell them it’s you. And then let them decide whether “Santa” should keep visiting. (I’m pretty sure they’ll say yes.)
In truth perpetuating the Santa myth is not likely to hurt. But it’s also not necessary.
My advice: Tell the truth about Santa. ‘Fess up. Give it context, and remind your child that other parents might not tell their kids so it’s just a secret for you to share for now.