December can be a worrisome month for some parents. For those of us who don’t celebrate Christmas, that is. For those of us who are immune to magical thinking. As the rest of the world strings lights and bakes cookies and sprinkles the lawn with reindeer dust in an effort to gussy up the house for the arrival of that rotund white-bearded fellow, I will be sitting my children down and, with as stern a face as I can muster, delivering “the talk.” The one where I tell them to keep their mouths shut about Santa Claus.
I learned the importance of “the talk” the hard way. When he was 4, my son had a rather unfortunate exchange with the daughter of our family friends. It went something like this:
Girl, excited: Santa Claus is getting me an X for Christmas!
Son, deadpan: Santa Claus is just pretend.
Girl, shocked: No. He isn’t.
Son, holding his ground: Yes, he is.
Girl, becoming plaintive: But he brings me my presents!
Son, ever the realist: That’s actually your mom and dad…
We heard the sobbing from the next room, hers not his, and came running. The conversation was relayed back to us, in glossy pre-school detail. The girl’s parents were not pleased, though they were able to talk her round quickly enough with hard-line reassurances that Santa Claus is, indeed, real. All the while my own son looked on in quiet confusion.
This was not the first time he had found himself at odds with a playmate over a point of information. He was a pensive little boy, who took factual disputes—and their accurate resolutions—seriously. But it was the first time his mother wasn’t chiming in with the “truth.”
That was five years ago. “The talk” has assumed a new urgency recently as the same boy approaches double digits and his younger brother settles into 7. The stakes are higher now, both because at this age children are more susceptible to their friends’ versions of events and because it is precisely the bracket when most of them who do believe in Santa Claus, stop. The average age in this respect is seven and a half, which makes sense from a developmental point of view. By 8, most kids have the logic and reasoning skills to call the bluff based on the available evidence: mom’s handwriting on the gifts, for example, or budgetary discrepancies between households.
As a skeptic and a realist to the core (my son didn’t fall far from the tree after all), I’ve never quite seen the point of the sort of fantasy figure Santa cuts.
Imagination is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong. My kids engage with a host of creatures from books and movies that are fantastical but, ultimately, not real to them. I’ve always wondered why, in certain circumstances, we feel the need to blur the line: What benefit do children reap from one of these characters escaping the realm of make-believe and crashing through the chimney, as it were, into their very own homes? And is the gain worth the longer-term price of dishonesty?
There is disagreement, even among experts, over whether it is healthy for children to be encouraged to believe wholeheartedly in something their parents know is untrue. The potential threat this might raise in terms of trust and sense of security. And yet, while sustained lying to your kids is generally acknowledged to be a no-no, the persistence of cultural myths falls into a separate category. Like myths such as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, perpetuated as they are, often elaborately, by parents as well as by society and done so in the name of tradition and good fun. The majority of children are unlikely to be harmed by this type of false belief.
A more pertinent question, for those of us who are concerned about our own kids spilling the beans, is whether there is an ideal way for children to shed this particular skin.
Some adults recall being devastated by learning the truth about Santa Claus from a loud-mouthed classmate. Others say their first seeds of doubt were planted by peers and their own aha moments grew organically, happily from there. Like so many milestones, this one seems to work best when it is a gradual transition, hinging on the individual child and his or her idiosyncratic “readiness.” The fact of the reveal, in other words, doesn’t matter as much as the timing and conditions surrounding it.
Which is why I don’t want my kid to be responsible for bursting another kid’s bubble prematurely. And as the mother of the resident non-believers on the block, I have already been forewarned by several friends that their children’s enthusiasm for Santa, even at 7 and 8, is still going strong. “Make sure Leo doesn’t say anything this year,” they whisper, as their kids address letters to the North Pole and ready frothy glasses of milk for Christmas Eve’s hospitable kitchen table.
Though I haven’t experienced it personally, I appreciate that a child’s shift from belief’s cozy embrace to the cooler grip of reality is one over which many parents feel protective. They cherish their own childhood belief in Santa Claus and the positive emotion it conjures. According to neuroscientist Kelly Lambert, every Christmas a child continues to believe, counts. “For every year I layered another set of Christmas memories into their brains,” she writes, “the easier it would be for them to relive those feelings.”
My kids will never be able to rekindle those feelings for themselves. But what they will remember about December, hopefully, and about Christmas, is that it is a time when respecting differences is its own kind of magic.
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