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The Santa Claus Dilemma

When the time comes, how will you handle your child’s questions?

Is it right to fill kids’ minds with stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and other mythical figures? If so, when is the appropriate time to tell your child the grown-up version? And what should parents do when a sibling or friend at school prematurely spoils the magic?

“These figures are intrinsically interesting for kids to contemplate. This little guy comes down the chimney. A reindeer can fly. They have mystery. They’re different from everyday life. There’s an imaginative quality to them,” says Frank Farley, PhD, a Temple University psychologist and former president of the American Psychological Association.

To Tell the Truth

The issue that makes parents squirm is fibbing. “Of course, it’s okay to lie to your child. It’s also okay to teach your child to lie. It’s important to realize that lying is an appropriate and useful thing,” says Noam Shpancer, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Otterbein College in Westerville, OH.

If that sounds borderline blasphemous, consider that there are certain truths that shouldn’t be spoken, such as the fact that Uncle Albert is fat. “Omissions of truth are okay,” explains Dr. Shpancer. “It lubricates social relationships and allows us to interact and live together.”

At the extreme, there are times when lying can be morally righteous. For example, few considered it wrong during World War II when gentile families hid Jews in their basements and then lied about it to the authorities. Somewhere between that extreme and “little white lies,” we develop a sense of what’s okay, according to our values.

So is telling kids about mythical characters good for them? Dr. Shpancer believes the answer is yes. “First of all, myths, fairy tales and stories are useful for acquainting the child or introducing the child to certain themes and things about life,” he says. “Children’s thinking when they are young is very magical. Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy stories fit with their world view in a nice way, and I don’t think it does any damage.”

Children aren’t likely to confront their parents later in life about being told such myths. They will understand that they were nice stories that gave them a sense of comfort and order when they were young, appropriate for that time of life.

Naughty and Nice?

Dr. Shpancer cautions parents about potential problems. Difficulty can occur if parents use Santa in a vindictive or scary way, such as saying, “You were bad, and that’s why Santa didn’t bring the Nintendo game you wanted.”

Dr. Farley concurs. “Don’t do that, parents, that’s awful. Don’t use these wonderful mythical characters to punish kids. That’s like withholding love. That’s totally wrong as a method of discipline. Don’t use Santa negatively.”

So how do you handle it if Santa couldn’t see his way to giving little Johnny the pony he asked for? “You could say, ‘Ponies were in very short supply this year. But look at the nice things he did bring,’” Dr. Farley suggests. But don’t stop there. Get a pony figure at the dollar store, or buy a DVD like The Black Stallion, or a children’s book about horses.

Avoid the “bad kids get lumps of coal in their stockings” approach, says Dr. Farley. “That infuses an irrational core to causality,” he says. “We don’t want people to believe that causality is witchcraft or make-believe. These myths aren’t a way to teach kids lessons. They’re wonderful things just the way they are. They instill creative thinking and allow kids to fantasize about life.”

The Dawn of Logic

Many of us can recall when we were old enough to reason that Santa Claus might be a story, but still young enough to go along with it. When children get to be about 6 years old, they begin reasoning. Between 1st and 3rd grade, they figure it out.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re ready to admit it. “The truth and the myth are not mutually exclusive,” says Dr. Shpancer. At age 4 or 5, kids begin to understand cause-and-effect, and the logic of why things happen. “But this sense is still dawning, and it hasn’t completely eliminated the magic,” he says. “There is a period developmentally where the world is logical and also magical.”

In other words, a child might know logically that Santa Claus might have a tough time fitting down the chimney with all those presents, but he still likes to share the myth with Mom and Dad. The story continues for a while simply because it is fun and comforting.

Even if the child knows who put the money under the pillow, it might still be a source of pleasure to wake up and find cash there, with a magical story attached to it. That can be a source of pleasure for the parents, too.

“When they figure it out on their own, it’s an interesting process,” says Dr. Farley. “You have to figure out life on your own. A lot of life is self-efficacy and wanting to do things on your own. Nothing central in the Santa myth is destructive.”

The Age of Reason

As a child grows and begins to question mythical characters, parents need to be attuned. If a child makes a logical observation about the Tooth Fairy, such as “I know it was you who put the money under my pillow,” denying it could be perceived as a betrayal of trust. There is no owner’s manual here. It’s best to know your child and base your responses on that knowledge.

“You can say, ‘Okay, it’s just a fun myth’ and then explain what a myth is. This is your myth moment,” says Dr. Farley. “A myth is a story that is not true, but is a lot of fun to talk about and think about and believe in. Myths make life more interesting. And don’t forget to mention, ‘You got the present, right?’ Most kids will be okay with that.”

Given the soothing nature of such myths, some kids can become upset when they prematurely discover reality. One child spills the beans to another, and the other child is upset and confused.

If that happens to your child, Dr. Farley suggests explaining that families celebrate in different way. “You can explain, ‘Families like to believe in different things. We like Santa because he’s so much fun, that jolly little man. He’s an enjoyable story we like in our family.”

For first questions, keep your explanation simple, say Drs. Farley and Shpancer. A brief response such as, “Santa’s important to us. We think he’s fun,” will often satisfy the child’s immediate curiosity. In the meantime, you’ve preserved the childhood magic just a little bit longer.

Lori Murray is a freelance writer.

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