Believing in Santa may be good for kids

In many households across the country, Monday evening featured reindeer flying from the North Pole and landing on the rooftop, Santa sliding down the chimney with a bag of just what you’ve asked for as long as you’ve been nice not naughty. It’s probably the most elaborate lie any parent will concoct, with some parents going beyond the traditional nibbling on the cookies and carrots to hiring a professional Santa to come place presents in the middle of the night while the children are awoken to sneak a peek.

"Santa Claus is coming...." by premier-photo.com; displayed under Creative Commons license.

“Santa Claus is coming….” by premier-photo.com; displayed under Creative Commons license.

Some parents defend the lie as a right of passage; others point out that the naughty/nice system is unjust bribery and that lying to our children sets a bad precedent; and some are caught in between. The scholars of the world are likewise torn; the title of one journal article, “Perpetuating the Father Christmas story: a justifiable lie?”, says it all – or more precisely the question mark says it, because even the experts have no clear answer about what’s best. We have to weigh the risks of lying to children against the benefits of fostering a cultural identity through shared experiences and beliefs.

The good news is that the belief itself – in an impossible scenario of flying wingless mammals and chimney transportation – is probably not harmful, and in fact may be helpful in teaching children learn how to think. The same logical practice by which children deduce the role of their parents (in my case, noticing that Santa and my mother had identical handwriting) will be useful later on when we must identify deception and reason out cause and effect in bigger workings of the universe. But even the act of belief itself might help children develop their imaginations by engaging in communal pretend play and visualizing everything they’re told. This imagination may go on to be a key component of thinking about things you can’t see – which includes love, the future, what’s happening in Africa right now.

I’m particularly fond of this argument because it means my favorite author, Terry Pratchett, was not far off in his creation of Hogfather, a satirical fantasy in which children receive presents on “Hogswatchnight” delivered by the “Hogfather”. In the story, our heroine Susan – who, ironically, had been raised by parents who insisted there was no such thing as the Tooth Fairy or Hogfather, and turned out to be lying through their teeth – must rescue the kidnapped Hogfather while her grandfather Death tries to preserve children’s belief. Because children’s belief in this ersatz Santa Claus is vitally important:

Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies. 
Susan: So we can believe the big ones? 
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.

The good news for parents is that what studies have looked at the loss of belief in Santa Claus have shown no lasting trauma for the children. When 50 children between 9 and 12 years old were interviewed about their Santa Claus experiences (in 1987, reported in an article published in 1994, the most recent study I could find), they reported having discovered the truth around age 7, with about half of them figuring it out on their own and a third being told by their parents. More importantly, they did not report a lot of intense negative emotions at their discovery; although half agreed that they felt “bad”, “sad”, “disappointed”, or “tricked”, more reported that they felt “happy” (62%) or “good” (58%). None of these emotions seemed particularly intense; less than 20% of children said they felt any emotion “a lot”. And even at this tender pre-adolescent age, most thought Santa was an important tradition and wanted to preserve it for their siblings.

It’s difficult to say how much a study from a generation ago still applies today – especially, as the original authors note, because the children were all white, Christian, and middle-class, so the influences of Santa discoveries on many children in the diverse 21st century may be very different. However, all together the science suggests that children take far more pleasure from the tradition and belief than they take harm from discovering the lie. It should be a relief to parents everywhere.

And I am sorely tempted to do some modern Santa research of my own now.

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