As parents and caregivers, we often try to teach kids the importance of honesty — and we usually do our best to tell them the truth, in age-appropriate ways. But what about when it comes to fun little childhood tricks like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny?
The more you go along with these make-believe traditions, the more you might start to feel like you’re stuck in a moral dilemma. How will your kids be affected when they find out you haven’t exactly been telling the truth?
The good news is that most childhood development experts agree that parents don’t need to feel guilty about “lying” — if the topic at hand is a fun, magical legend that your child wants to believe in. Young kids are immersed in pretend play and imaginary stories all day long. Up to about age seven they tend to consider everything, including the characters in their favorite books and TV shows, to be “real.”
According to Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Sesame Workshop, the organization behind Sesame Street, “You’re not lying. You’re engaging in their world of make-believe.” She advised NPR Life Kit that playing along in that pretend world can be a wonderful, developmentally appropriate way for parents to bond with little kids. So young kids won’t be hurt by you encouraging them to think that the magic is real.
However, once your child gets more savvy and really starts to doubt whether Santa, the Tooth Fairy, or other fictional character is real, the question of honesty does become important to consider. Here are some steps to take when you’re at that point — and don’t worry, you might not need to burst their Santa or Tooth Fairy bubble just yet!
Find out the reason behind their doubts
First, find out more about why they’re asking. “Pause before you respond and make sure you’re really answering the question with the just right amount of information that they can handle at the moment,” recommends Dr. Truglio.
Ask some questions, and do more listening than talking to find out if they’re really ready for the fun of believing in Santa to be over. You can say:
“Why do you ask? Did you notice something? Or did a friend at school say something?
[Pause and listen…]
Well, what do you think about it?”
At this point, if they try to defend the legend and explain why Santa is real — even though their classmate said he’s not, or certain parts of the story are confusing — then feel free to let the tradition keep running. They’re still having fun believing in parts of it, and that’s OK.
When it’s time to “come clean” about Santa
However, if your child’s brain is mature enough to have the logistics all figured out, and flat-out asks you if you’ve been the ones buying all the presents and pretending to be Santa — or if they simply don’t think it’s fun to believe in Santa anymore — then it is time to stop pretending.
Beyond answering logistical questions, here’s what you can say:
“Santa is part of a legend — which means a story from a long time ago that people like to tell over and over again, until even the magical parts start to feel real. We can look up the legend of St. Nicholas if you want.
When I was a kid I had so much fun believing in the magic of Santa. We decided to try to make it fun for you as well, by playing along with the tradition (and sometimes making up our own parts of it too).
So, yes, we put the presents under the tree and wrote you those notes. And the fun, the magical feelings, and the spirit of generosity and love are definitely real!
What do you think — was it fun to believe in Santa? How do you feel about him not being real?
Some people like to believe he’s real, and some people don’t. But the important thing is that it’s all just about the fun of the holiday and the spirit of giving. So if some kids still like believing in Santa, we’re not going to stop their fun, right?”
Ease the transition by giving them a role
Just because kids are mature enough to not believe in Santa doesn’t mean they won’t be sad about the end of that stage. But it also doesn’t mean they have to be done with the magic of it! Find a way to continue the tradition in some way with them, if they’re interested.
“Do you still want to get presents from Santa? Or would you like to go behind the scenes and help us be the make-believe Santa for your sister?
What was the most fun or comforting thing about believing in Santa?
We can help younger kids get that warm feeling by answering the letters to Santa from your little cousins, or through a charity. Or we could set up a Secret Santa with the whole family.
We can also still make Santa’s cookies if you like, and give them to someone you care about — after eating a few ourselves, of course!
And we can still watch all the movies. Even I am not too old for that!”
How to start your own intentional Santa tradition
If you haven’t introduced Santa in a major way yet, but are thinking about it, know that you can do the Santa/St. Nick tradition in any way that matches your family’s values. Here are some questions and decisions to consider before you get too deep into make-believe land:
- Do you think Santa is fun? What feelings does it bring up from childhood? Will you have fun, warm and fuzzy feelings when replicating that with your kids? Which parts of the tradition do you most want to keep, and why?
- Do you want to tell your child that Santa is actually real, or that he’s a mythical character that you can choose to play along with? If you’re worried about the potential negative feelings of having to keep up the charade in the future, then the second approach could be for you. It doesn’t take away from the magical feeling of the tradition — in fact, knowing it’s a fantasy can even add to the fun. Just make sure that they know some kids/families think he’s actually real, and that’s OK.
- Either way, avoid using Santa (or certain elves) as a behavioral manipulation strategy for kids (i.e., threatening them with no presents). To create positive childhood memories, Santa should always be kind and fun, not something that makes some kids feel worse about their behavior.
- Just because you do the whole Santa thing doesn’t mean that Santa has to get credit for all the presents under the tree. Many families choose to give kids gifts clearly labeled from their family members, along with a gift or stocking stuffers “from Santa.” Discuss it with your friends and extended family to clear up any confusion, but ultimately the decision is up to you!
- Whatever you decide, be sure to find a way to make the holiday tradition meaningful to your family, so that it’s not only about the stuff that kids will be getting or not getting. With or without Santa, you can create wonderful moments of bonding, and teach them about the value of giving.