The Delicate Matter of the Truth About Santa

Santa Claus from Finland, gestures during a Christmas promotional event for a shopping center in downtown, Hong Kong Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007. (Image credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

It's OK to let your children believe in Santa Claus, psychologists say.

Some parents may worry about the effect of the Santa story on kids once they figure out who's really been eating the cookies and milk left by the fireplace, but giving kids an immediate dose of reality on the subject isn't necessary, says child psychologist Bruce Henderson of Western Carolina University, because young children often use their imagination and make-believe when they play.

"Santa is just one of the many fantasy figures that exists in a preschooler's world," Henderson said. "Adults might just be wasting time trying to get a child at that age to give up on such a warm and fuzzy character to accept adult realities."

Tell the truth or keep the myth?

A peskier problem for parents comes when children are older and start thinking more concretely about the world and wondering how Santa can make the worldwide journey in just one night, bringing up the inevitable question: "Is Santa Claus real?"

Should parents tell their kids the truth or encourage the myth?

"Most parents do not worry very much that encouraging the Santa myth is harmful or that eventually spilling the beans will make their children mad at them," Henderson said. "They are torn, however, about what to do when their children directly confront them with their doubts."

Parents and experts alike vary on how to respond to children in this situation.

"At one extreme are those who suggest that any kind of deception is wrong," Henderson said. "On the other extreme are those who consider most any fantasy to be valuable for stretching the child's imagination."

If the Santa bubble does get burst, parents shouldn't worry too much about their child's reaction, Henderson said.

"A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that children are remarkably resilient in response to hurt and disappointment," he said.

But oh, the deception!

For those parents who are particularly concerned about deceiving their children, it might be best to tone down the Santa mythology from the beginning, Henderson said.

But the best advice, as with many parent-child relations, is to let the child provide the cues for what they're ready for, he said.

"Forcing an elaborate Santa Claus story on children serves no good purpose for child or parent," he said. "On the other hand, following the child's lead in fantasy play about Santa Claus is likely to do no more harm than imaginative play surrounding Elmo or Mickey Mouse. Parents can respond to direct questions honestly with answers appropriate to their children's developmental levels."

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Andrea Thompson
Live Science Contributor

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.