Santa Claus: How and When Children Discover the Truth

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In an unsigned editorial on September 21, 1897, veteran newsman Francis Pharcelius Church answered 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s query, “Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?” with this reply:

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist … Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus … We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished … Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies!” [1]

The last I checked, fairies don’t exist, do they? Given the opportunity to “Please tell [Virginia] the truth,” Mr. Church not only lent his credibility to the Santa Claus myth, but he also tied belief in Santa Claus to a belief in “love and generosity and devotion.” When Virginia grew up, and realized that Santa Claus was not real after all, did it cause any sense of disappointment, or betrayal, or, worse, a cynicism about these important virtues?

My wife and I have never used the Santa Claus story in our house. I’ve honestly never really seen the point. I work hard for my money, so if I’m going to give my children gifts, I want the credit! In addition, I wanted to be consistently honest with my children, and this story seemed to have the potential to call my trustworthiness into question. It’s possible that children believe in the Santa Claus myth for longer than they would normally, except that the people they trust more than anyone else in the world – their parents – are insisting that it is real. My scientific mind worried that my children could be traumatized by the eventual discovery of the truth. It turns out that my worries were unfounded.

​Are children at risk of a traumatic discovery?

In an article about the reactions that children have when they find out that Santa Claus is not real [2], the vast majority of children had positive reactions. In fact, it was the parents​ who were saddened that the myth was over. In my interactions with parents whose children may be finding out the truth, I hear a similar sadness. It seems that parents go along with the Santa Claus story as part of a larger desire for their children to be allowed to just be children. The belief in magic and some ethereal, otherworldly realm, where life is freedom and goodness, is a gift that some parents want their children to have.

What’s interesting from a psychological perspective is the difference between the Santa Claus story and almost every other fantasy character to whom children are introduced. When parents play with their children, pretending to be Spider-Man or Wonder Woman, or Snow White, there is an implicit understanding that the play is just pretend. There are no efforts on the part of parents to convince a child that Spider-Man is real. By contrast, Santa Claus (and, less so, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy) is not only a part of the Christmas magic, but is also purported to be a real person, whose magic requires belief in his actuality.

In spite of this insistence, somewhere along the line, usually around the age of 8 or 9, children begin to realize that the Santa Claus story is full of flaws and leaps of spatiotemporal faith that cannot be sustained. In some cases, children may figure it out long before they “come out of the closet” to their parents as unbelievers, because they sense that it means so much to their parents that they hold onto their childish beliefs. Perhaps the sadness parents feel is just another example of the melancholic nostalgia we all have when we think about how small and cute our children used to be? Our goal is to help them grow up, but there’s a part of us that wants them to stay small.


The holes in the story

In a recent article in Cognitive Development journal [3], researchers engaged with children in conversations about five commonly held feats that Santa Claus accomplishes every year: 1) He can travel around the world in one night; 2) He knows when you’re naughty and nice; 3) He makes all the Christmas toys in his factory; 4) He flies around in a reindeer-drawn sleigh; 5) He enters houses through chimneys. The researchers were interested in tracking children as they got older, analyzing the complexity of their questions about these five feats.

The differences that they found between younger and older children are interesting. In general, it appears that, as children develop more understanding of the general laws of the physical world, they begin to realize that certain phenomena are impossible. In 1958, a psychologist named Jean Piaget wrote a book about the cognitive development of children [4]. According to Piaget, right about at the ages of 8 or 9, children enter something called the “concrete operational stage.” During this stage, children come to understand and think logically about concrete events. Their experiences with the physical world, and their growing brains, have given them a frame of reference for judging what types of events are possible, impossible and implausible.

It appears to be no coincidence that this age marks the beginnings of skepticism about Santa Claus. When the researchers asked children to write some questions for Santa Claus, younger children asked for information:

“Where do you live?”

“How tall is the North Pole?”

“What are your elves names?”

All of these questions reflect a belief in the Santa Claus story. The children asking these questions believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and has elves. The questions are just looking for details.

In contrast, older children’s questions are far more conceptual. You can almost hear the challenging tone behind the questions that they write. They have moved beyond the faith, and demand evidence.

“How can you possibly get to all the houses in one night?”

“How do you fit through the chimney?”

“How do you know when I’m being bad?”

The belief in Santa Claus – and its inevitable demise – represents a turning point for our children. It also represents a turning point in our parenting. Once they are able to see through this impossible story, they are on the road toward adolescence and adulthood. It’s time to loosen the reins, and move from direction to guidance. It’s time to begin adjusting to the eventual arrival of our empty nest.

When I was a new parent, I heard the same advice that you probably heard: “Enjoy them while they’re young because they grow up so quickly.” If your family embraces the Santa myth, enjoy it. One day, they will begin to express their skepticism. When you notice that the questions they ask take on a critical tone, they are on the cusp of learning the truth.

While this may seem like a reason for sadness, in fact, it is evidence that your child is becoming the adult that you are helping him/her become. It is the end of one stage, but the beginning of another one. Whether or not your children have a literal belief in Santa Claus, they are growing up. They can still believe in the love and generosity and devotion that the Santa Claus myth represents. The demise of the literal Santa Claus doesn’t mean that the world becomes a terrible place. It means that your children are ready to realize – without the props – that it’s a wonderful life!


References
[1] http://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia/
[2] Anderson, C. J., & Prentice, N. M. (1994). Encounter with reality: children’s reactions on discovering the Santa Claus myth. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 25(2), 67-84.
[3] Shtulman, A., & Yoo, R. I. (2015). Children’s understanding of physical possibility constrains their belief in Santa Claus. Cognitive Development, 34, 51-62.
[4] Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The Growth of Logical Thinking From Childhood to Adolescence: An Essay on the Construction of Formal Operational Structures (Developmental Psychology). Basic Books.

Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out  drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at info@drjohnrich.com.