It starts with a hunch, which leads to a question. How does Santa manage to get to everyone’s house in just one night? How does he enter a home without a fireplace? Why does my train have a price tag from Target if Santa’s elves manufactured it at the North Pole?
You might assume that a childhood can be neatly divided into two chapters: Before Santa and After Santa. But rarely does the evolution of a person’s beliefs adhere to such a direct, linear path. For many children, there is a period of time — days, months or even years — when hope and doubt coexist.
For parents in families that practice Santa, fielding questions can be a challenge. Trying to get a grasp on what children “know” is tricky when that knowledge is shifting and slippery. To complicate matters, parents have their own bittersweet feelings about their children leaving behind an era in which the line between magic and reality is blurred.
As with many other dilemmas that arise in the course of parenting, the wisest course is often to take a step back and follow your child’s lead as they negotiate this journey for themselves.
Megan McNamee, a registered dietician who runs the Instagram account Feeding Littles, recently chronicled the way she handled her daughter’s Santa realization.
McNamee and her partner both grew up with a Santa tradition, and it was important to them to continue one with their children. “We wanted our kids to experience the magic and mystery of him, and I have been so grateful for those special moments with my kids,” McNamee told HuffPost.
She wrote on Instagram that when her fifth grader told her, “Mom, I already know. I’ve known since last year,” her initial thought was: “It’s officially over. The magic is over. It’s done.”
McNamee remembers feeling “upset” herself when, in the fourth grade, she discovered that her own parents bought the presents. She said she’s also seen a lot of anti-Santa content online, warning parents that their kids will react negatively when they eventually learn the truth. So it came as a relief that, rather than getting angry, her daughter’s response was “very rational and understanding.”
Although she had figured out the truth about Santa, her daughter was eager to continue playing along and keep the spirit of Santa alive in their home.
McNamee told HuffPost that her daughter “thought it was pretty cool that we went through all that trouble to have Santa in our home. She knew that it was done with love, and she hopes that Santa — and the elf — continue as they always have. She looks forward to keeping the magic alive for her little sister as long as possible.”
While the idea of Santa will shift as her younger daughter, too, grows up, McNamee plans for his continued presence in their home.
“Even after our youngest finds out, we will still have ‘Santa gifts’ and ‘Mom and Dad gifts,’ just as my parents had with us,” she said. “Santa becomes an idea more than a person, and that idea will still be very special to us long after our kids have learned about who brings them presents.”
She understands that Santa isn’t for every family, and each child’s belief will evolve differently as they grow up. Still, McNamee encourages families that want to practice Santa not to be discouraged by naysayers who predict negative outcomes.
When she shared her story online, “the response was massive — parents were relieved to hear that I upheld the story of Santa with my eldest, and when she found out she was not traumatized or upset,” McNamee said. “Rather, it was a pretty cool outcome.”
HuffPost spoke to psychologist Cara Goodwin, known online as the Parenting Translator, for some tips on how families who choose to practice Santa can handle these conversations.
Undo the link between kids’ behavior and Santa’s gifts.
McNamee keeps her distance from what she calls “the naughty or nice rhetoric,” and Goodwin confirmed that this is the right move if you’re hoping to influence your child’s behavior.
“I think the real problem is when parents start linking Santa to behavior,” Goodwin said. “Because, first of all, we know those approaches don’t work because a young child cannot turn down an immediate reward for a later reward.”
She noted that this is true even when the reward comes just minutes after the behavior — so getting your child to clean their room in order to earn a gift in 25 days isn’t realistic.
Ideally, Goodwin said, kids will experience “natural and logical consequences that are immediate and linked to the behavior.” For example, if a toddler is throwing food, you take away their plate and explain that eating time is over. An older child who refuses to put on their coat would simply feel the cold.
“The most powerful thing parents can really do is noticing the positive behavior and praising it,” Goodwin said. This could be as quick and simple as thanking a child for using “gentle hands” with a younger sibling.
In addition, Goodwin explained, most kids will come to understand that withholding Christmas presents is a threat most parents aren’t prepared to truly follow through on.
Finally, she said that “discipline tactics like expressing disappointment and shaming our kids are linked to anxiety,” and aren’t effective anyway. In general, she says, in order to encourage positive behavior in kids, “we don’t want to label the child, we want to label the behavior.” The idea of a “naughty” list runs counter to this, and could be confusing for a child who has been labeled “nice” but does something naughty.
Kids are more likely to have negative feelings about the whole Santa experience when it’s been wrapped up with threats related to their behavior.
Ask open-ended questions.
Goodwin noted that imaginary play is a normal part of childhood experience, and playing along with the idea of Santa (or the tooth fairy, or any other game that requires the suspension of disbelief) is developmentally appropriate. One survey found that children stop pretend play at age 11, on average.
When a child is asking questions, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to hear you come forward with the whole truth. The best way to gauge what they’re looking to hear is to respond to their inquiries with some open-ended questions of your own, and see where their thoughts take them.
Goodwin suggested that parents ask themselves: “Do they really want to know, or are they just kind of testing the theories that they have?”
The son of a friend of mine, for example, noticed around age 7 that there was overlap between his Christmas wish list and the recent purchases listed on my friend’s online shopping accounts. But instead of jumping in with a full-scale confession, she encouraged him to say more.
He reasoned that it made sense that Santa had helpers. He couldn’t do everything in his workshop, after all.
Emphasize good intentions.
There’s no need to use negative language, like “lying” or “tricking,” when talking to kids about Santa. Words like “game,” “imaginary” and “play” are more accurate. You can also welcome older kids to the privileged position of continuing the Santa tradition for younger siblings or other little ones in their life.
“Explaining the intentions can help them to keep the secret if that’s something that you want to want them to do,” Goodwin said.
Parents also shouldn’t worry too much about kids having big, negative reactions. One study on people learning the truth about Santa found that “for most children, it was a very gradual realization, not something that is extremely upsetting to them,” Goodwin explained. In fact, the study found that parents had more negative feelings about the reveal than their children did.
Goodwin suggested that parents remember “it could actually be harder for you than your child. And be open to however your child feels about it, which may not be how you feel about it.”
The findings about kids’ reactions make sense, she said, in the context of other research that shows children are less disturbed by prosocial lying, which benefits another person, than by controlling lying, which is an attempt to control someone’s behavior.
Such research, Goodwin said, shows “that children are more understanding of prosocial lying... [and] when they find out it’s a lie, that they can still maintain trust in the adult.”
In other words, intentions matter. If you’re using Santa to manipulate your kids into behaving a certain way, they’re more likely to have negative feelings about it than if your goal is simply to foster the Christmas spirit.
“While I do agree that we could drop the ‘naughty or nice’ rhetoric, Santa can be a really magical experience for families, and I hope they don’t feel guilty for doing something they have really looked forward to doing with their kids,” McNamee said.