How old is too old to believe? Five? Eight? Twelve years old?
Jeff: So here’s what I’m facing: My sixth-grader will be 12 in February. He’s known about Santa for like a year and a half. (He read it in “Calvin and Hobbes,” which I’m a little heartbroken about.)
Robyn: Uh, my third-grader is obsessed with Calvin. And spends hours reading the strips to my 6-year-old. THIS IS NOT GOOD NEWS.
Jeff: We were leaving a short weekend at the Disney water parks. I’m packing the car in the parking lot, buckling the 2-year-old in his car seat, and the older asks, tremulously, “So, um, Santa is you guys, right?” Santa and leaving Disney in the same night — we like to package our traumatic kid events when possible.
Robyn: What did you say?
Jeff: The truth! He had me — I either come clean or double down on the lie, right? Also I was covered in chlorine and I think was dealing with swim-diaper unpleasantness from the little one, I wasn’t really in the mindset for important parenting decisions. (Unrelated: Swim diapers don’t work.)
Robyn: How did he take it? How did YOU take it?
Jeff: See, that’s the kicker: It didn’t take. He’s a sweet, imaginative kid, so the news hit him pretty hard — so hard, in fact, that he apparently blocked it out entirely, and spent that Christmas and this one talking about Santa’s upcoming visit.
Robyn: Wait, what?
Jeff: He’s been talking in circles around Santa, hinting that perhaps I was mistaken. He’ll phrase it curiously too, like, “Well I remember what YOU said,” like it’s not necessarily reality, only Dad’s questionable version of it. But he’s in sixth grade! You know sixth graders; half of them are into drawing dragons and re-enacting “Jurassic World” at recess, the other half lie on the couch watching Notre Dame games. It’s one year and about 30 or 40 different levels of emotional development. But there’s also cruelty there, and kids can levy it like it’s nothing, just offhandedly dismantle another kid’s day or week or month with a remark, and if my son is bringing this Santa yang to the lunch table I’m worried the kids are gonna be like, “Uh…”
Robyn: He won’t be. You’ve armed him with enough doubt to either not say anything or to chuckle knowingly. I mean, it might crush some small part of him deep inside, but he’ll be okay.
Jeff: RIGHT. So all I’m doing is crushing his inner self. You keep writing, I’m getting a scotch.
Robyn: No no no — you have a great opportunity here. The first blow has been struck — that moment when the kid finds the Santa wrapping paper in Mom’s closet. Or checks Dad’s internet history and sees all the Amazon orders. Or reads a comic strip about a cynical 6-year-old and his lying parents. That part is done. But he still WANTS to believe in something. So you can help him do that. Now’s where you get to lay out the real deal about Santa.
Jeff: Please tell me that deal, as I am still enjoying this scotch.
Robyn: Look, Santa isn’t just one guy, but lots of people who all work for the same Santa ideal, giving people in this world the example of believing in something they can’t see. In believing in generosity for generosity’s sake. He can be part of that now. He can keep believing in magic and love and kindness because he can help you make it, and he can watch it on his brother’s face on Christmas morning. And screw the kids at the lunch table, they’ll be distant vaguely uncomfortable memories in a few years.
Jeff: DO YOU HEAR THAT, CHRIS KIRKPATRICK AND EVERYONE WHO CALLED ME “PAUL PFEIFFER,” YOU’RE VAGUELY UNCOMFORTABLE MEMORIES NOW. I mean, I remember all your names, but you know what I’m getting at.
Robyn: Seriously. I’ve read eloquent letters about Santa over the years, letters from parents to kids about who Santa really is. And I always thought ‘What a great response that will be when my kid asks me’ … but Lord knows I won’t say any of that. I’ll be stuck the day my oldest carries one of his Calvin books over to me and asks me to explain. But I think that initial “is he or isn’t he” moment happens in a flash for all parents, and isn’t as important as the follow-up message.
Jeff: Does your 8-year-old still believe?
Robyn: I’m going to say, unequivocally, yes. When do the mean kids in school start planting seeds of doubt? Tell me it’s not third grade.
Jeff: I knew in third grade. My dad loves telling this story: We were up on the roof. Our house had no fireplace, just a little Franklin stove in the living room. The pipe leading to it was about 4 inches wide. I looked right at him, pointed to the opening on the roof, said “Santa,” and shook my head no.
Robyn: Wait, who lets their third-grader on the roof? This is the man whose word you trusted?
Jeff: I was cleaning the gutters. Allowances don’t make themselves.
Robyn: Do you think you would have believed your dad if he’d told you some story about how Santa’s so magical he can fit into any sized chimney, through the smallest crack in a door? Do you remember wanting him to help you keep the magic alive? I think that’s part of the issue — not when kids “find out,” but how or why we should “help” them discover the truth. Because we preach that they should never lie.
Jeff: And then we collectively agree to drop a massive conspiracy on them on the most magical day of the year. I don’t know if I’d have believed him. I think I’d have been like, “Dude. Let’s cut the chit-chat, I am a man of 8.”
Robyn: As you took a long drag on your cigarette, then threw the butt off the roof.
Jeff: You grow up hard in northwest Indiana. You mentioned earlier that your parents really never told you. Do you remember suspecting?
Robyn: I don’t remember any specific “finding out.” When my sisters and I came home from college my parents would still be sitting bleary-eyed in the living room waiting for us to shuffle off to bed before they put presents under the tree. My little sister was, and I believe still is, insistent on believing in the magic of Christmas morning’s surprise. But I also think my folks love that same magic.
Jeff: I kind of want to send your parents Christmas presents this year. (Obviously they’ll be Kylo Ren lightsabers.)
Robyn: I have no idea what those words mean. But I think that’s what’s so great about Santa, that spirit of giving without getting anything in return. Once everyone in the room knows who put the presents there, there’s a more direct thankfulness that’s applied, which isn’t a bad thing, but that subtle shift in the moment is missing something.
Jeff: HE IS AN EVIL DARTH VADER FANBOY, and his lightsaber has cool extra blades coming out of the side, do you even have the internet? And sure, that makes sense, but does that spirit outweigh building up this myth for your kids, the lights of your life, the songs of your soul, knowing that at some point (probably when they’re developing their ethical compasses) they’ll discover you — and movies and stores and siblings and the rest of the world — to be a fraud?
Robyn: I think Christmas will lose more when my youngest stops believing. They’re 21 months apart, but I fear the Finding Out will be, at best, 21 minutes apart. Having said that, I’m kind of a lazy parent when it comes to the Santa thing. I mean I keep a secret stash of wrapping paper, and Jingles the elf answers their Santa letters each year. But beyond that …
Jeff: There’s a lot expected of you now. Also — and I think this is important — what’s Jingles the Elf?
Robyn: The perfect embodiment of my stance on Santa! It made me uncomfortable thinking about writing a letter back to them from him. Somehow it made sense in my parental guilt-laden brain to write a note from one of Santa’s helpers instead, because really that’s what I am. I am not Santa. Santa exists in all of us but is not one person exclusively. We are all Santa’s helpers.
Jeff: Yes we are, Jingles.
Robyn: Let ’em believe what they want to believe for as long as they want to believe it. Kids are innocent in their thinking for about seven minutes total. My kids still watch cartoons and occasionally turn to me and say “This didn’t really happen, right?” Their imaginations are still wild, their beliefs still come easy. Let them have magic for as long as possible.
Robyn Passante is a journalist, writer and Jingles. Find more of her work at robynpassante.com. She tweets @robynpassante.
Jeff Vrabel is a writer, dad and confused about whether Santa is real. You can find him @jeffvrabel and jeffvrabel.com.
Join On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and advice. You can sign up here for our e-newsletter and can find us at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.
You might also be interested in: