The holiday season, while typically a time for celebrations with family and friends, can also be stressful for parents as they scramble to shop for the perfect presents, cook holiday meals, and see extended family. A unique source of concern this time of year involves the dreaded question. I’m not talking about the “Are we there yet?” question from young travelers or the “Do I have to share my new toy?” complaint from siblings. I’m talking about the inquiry into Santa’s existence. Here are some tips for what to do when your child looks you in the eye and asks, “Is Santa real?”
Child development experts typically agree that believing in Santa Claus is not harmful for children. It’s similar to a number of other childhood myths like the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. Myths are fun for children who are developing creativity and imagination. Holiday myths often involve family traditions that bring parents and children together, including visiting and taking pictures with Santa, writing him letters with Christmas lists, and leaving out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve. Most of these traditions foster family togetherness and also offer fun opportunities to work on skills such as writing or baking. For families who do not celebrate Christmas or decide not to go along with the Santa story, there’s no harm in skipping out on this tradition either. There’s plenty of other great ways to foster family traditions and child creativity.
If you are a family who gets a visit from Santa each year, there is no perfect time to break the news to your child. Children question and give up the myth of Santa Claus at different times. Some will ask after talking to other children at school, while others will begin to think critically about the logic. For instance, your child may begin to test the story with questions like “How does Santa fit all the presents in one sleigh?” and “How does he get around the entire world in one night?”
When your child starts asking questions, resist the urge to either cover for Santa with a lie or spill the beans about the myth. Instead, it’s helpful to ask some follow up questions to see what your child knows and wants to believe. While some children logically understand that Santa does not exist, they may not be ready to completely give him up. Your child may ask, “Why does Santa look different in different places?” If your response is, “What do you think?” your child has the opportunity to say, “Well, I think it’s because he’s not real,” indicating she may be ready to give up Santa or “I guess he has helpers,” which suggests she is not yet ready.
When your child’s response suggests that he or she is ready to let go of Santa, consider starting other holiday traditions. This can include shopping and donating gifts for children in need or helping to keep the myth going for younger siblings.
Stephanie Wagner, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. She specializes in behavioral treatments for sleep as well as providing psychosocial interventions, including parent training, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), and school consultation to parents and teachers of children with ADHD and disruptive behavior disorders. She is also the co-director of Early Childhood Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center.