‘Fessing Up About Santa: When? How?

At that special time of year, on that special night, when it’s cocoa and warm blanket time, what is that jingling we hear? Is it the wind chimes that we forgot to take down before winter came? No! Then what is it? Any 5-yearold will have the answer and in a breathless voice will say, “It’s Santa.”But who and what is Santa? Does reality have anything to do with it? When is it time for parents to ’fess up about Santa? “That depends upon the age of the child,” said developmental psychologist Cyndy Scheibe. “In our research, we found that for Santa Claus, if someone tells them the truth, children don’t change their belief overnight. Instead it is a much longer transition, because there’s a lot of evidence on both sides. From a child’s perspective, there is a lot of evidence that he’s real, not least of which is that he brings you presents, you can see him on the street, and in most movies the answer is that Santa is real.”“The transition to disbeliever usually begins around age six or seven, taking about two to three years. From a developmental psychology standpoint that makes a lot of sense. That’s when children are moving from preoperational to concrete operational thinking, and that means in concrete operational thinking they’re looking for solid evidence, and magic is no longer a reason to believe how something works. A child in the concrete operational stage will begin to ask questions like, ‘How does Santa fit down the chimney? How does he get to all those houses in one night?’”Scheibe advised that when children ask about Santa for the first time, no matter what their age, the important thing for a parent is to ask back, What do you think? Why do you ask that? “When children first ask, they aren’t really looking for the right answer. They’re just trying to make sense of the fact that there’s a lot of ambiguous information out there.”“If a child is really demanding to know the truth and he or she says, ‘Come on, tell me the truth. I think Santa isn’t real,’ and the child has good evidence for changing his or her beliefs, then I think it is fine to talk to them about the truth. The advice I usually give is to always treat the Santa Claus story as part of a larger conversation about the magic and wonder of Christmas, and how it is about people giving things to each other as well as getting things and it is about making it a special time when special things happen. Then, explain to a child that there have been people – like St. Nicholas – who did caring and loving things, giving gifts to people who were lonely or needed them. Parents and other grown-ups continue this by playing Santa Claus for their own children and for each other – which makes the whole season and holiday more magical and wonderful, especially for little children. And now that they know the real secret of Santa Claus, they can join in with all of the other grown-ups in the world and continue this tradition to make it wonderful and magical for others.”“When my own daughter heard this story at the age of 8, I also told her that now she could help to fill the stockings for other people – especially for me – but that she would need to do it secretly when no one was looking. She has loved that part of Christmas ever since – finding little stocking stuffers and sneaking them into everyone’s stockings as a surprise. She also helps to make and wrap presents for other people, ring bells for the Salvation Army, collect canned goods for soup kitchens, and finds other ways of thinking and doing for other people during the Christmas season.“So to answer the old question whether children get anything out of believing in Santa – all you have to do is look to the ‘Baltimore Sun’ editorial ‘Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’ or ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and a host of other wonderful stories. In truth, we ALL get something out of believing in Santa Claus.”An associate professor of psychology at Ithaca College, Scheibe has been studying children’s beliefs about Santa Claus since the 1980s. She has interviewed hundreds of children ages five to twelve as well as retrospective memories in college students.

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