Tonight, Santa Claus will consume the minds of many children across the world. Many parents’ thoughts also drift there, but for different reasons. Parents of young children wonder whether they should promote the myth of the jolly old man in the red suit, while parents of older children wonder what they’re going to say when their child asks for the truth. Underlying both of these questions is a larger one: Is it good for kids to believe in Santa Claus? Research in developmental psychology suggests it is, because of the benefits for cognitive and emotional development.
Believing in impossible beings such as Santa Claus may exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills. The kind of thinking involved in imagining how nine reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease. This kind of thinking — engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible — is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the Internet.
Believing in Santa also exercises children’s deductive reasoning abilities and their use of evidence. We discovered in a recent study that older children might be better able than younger children to use, for example, the half-eaten cookies on Christmas morning as evidence of Santa’s existence. In our study, we taught children about a novel fantastical being, the Candy Witch, who visits children’s houses on Halloween night and replaces their candy with a new toy. Older children, who woke up to find their candy gone and a new toy in its stead, were more likely to assert that the Candy Witch really exists. Their advanced understanding of evidence led them to interpret the simultaneous disappearance of the candy and appearance of the toy as proof of the Candy Witch’s existence.
But perhaps the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive and emotional development may arise from the discovery that Santa Claus is not, in fact, a real physical being. Many parents envision a sudden point in time at which their child demands the truth, but the discovery process is often more gradual. In fact, there is often a protracted period during which children become increasingly less sure about Santa’s existence. Toward the end of this period, children may actually look for evidence to confirm their suspicions.
This is where parents can help. A parent who had disguised her handwriting on the presents from Santa can begin to use her own handwriting. Or she can put a few “from Santa” presents under the tree early for children to discover the night before. Once children begin to doubt, they become very scientific about the whole thing, and in some cases even set up their own experiments. For instance, my daughter left a camera and a note next to the milk and cookies, requesting that Santa take a picture of himself and leave it for her as evidence.
In the end, children are empowered by feeling that they have figured it out by themselves. Upon making the discovery, they become part of the adult world; they are “in on the secret” and can derive even more emotional benefit by being given a role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.
Though children get all the presents, they’re not the only ones who reap all the benefits of the Santa tradition. Engaging with cultural myths allows adults to vividly recall their own childhood sense of wonder and to create fun opportunities for their loved ones. In the end, the whole family benefits. Children grow emotionally and cognitively, and parents get to spend a bit of their own time imagining the impossible.
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