If you ask a child what their favourite part about Christmas is, more often than not, you’d hear an exclamation of “Santa Claus!” Every year, parents of young children have an important decision to make, even more important than which presents to buy or what to cook for Christmas dinner. Parents must either commit to the Santa tradition or attempt to survive without it in a culture it is deeply, and often passionately, embedded. It’s a decision that raises angst and generates heated discussions among people of all ages. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Some parents are concerned that engaging their children with the Santa story constitutes lying. To them, not only does this feel unethical, but it also raises concerns regarding whether their children will lose trust in them once they discover the truth. But studies say otherwise. They report that in fact, most children respond positively to the discovery, and that any emotional upset is extremely short-lived.
Another perspective is that telling your child about Santa doesn’t require lying at all – parents are simply encouraging their children’s participation in a fantasy. In taking children to see Frozen, reading them Harry Potter books, and dressing them up for Halloween, we’re involving children in fantasy worlds.
This bending of the truth saves the child’s life. Parents have to decide for themselves: Do the benefits of telling children about Santa outweigh the potential costs?
Brunch spoke to a few experts to find out more.
We spoke to behavioural health researcher Nilushka Perera who said that it’s not about whether it’s okay or not – it’s about why Santa Claus exists. “I think a lot of us as parents first need to understand what the meaning behind Santa is and where it originated from. In these times, we see a lot of commercialisation of Christmas – people who aren’t Christians also put up Christmas trees and we need to learn why that happens.”
She explained that if you are using Santa Claus with other belief systems, it is important to question how that will interplay into your family life, and added that these are all factors you need to take into consideration when creating an understanding between children and parents as well as an understanding around Santa and why he exists.
“It’s all about how you communicate about Santa Claus and the magical nature of Christmas. If you tell kids ‘oh there is a Santa Claus and he will bring you gifts if you’re good’, that is a behavioural strategy that will not work because you don’t really show the meaning behind it,” she said. She highlighted that in the long run, it is not a good behavioural strategy to motivate children to be good.
There are obvious benefits in engaging in imaginative experiences or fantasies; for example, she spoke about Harry Potter – we know that it’s not real but it helps us create depth in our experiences. “There are benefits in engaging in imaginative experiences for creativity, for cognitive development, and having shared belief systems can strengthen bonds between family members and friends while creating opportunities to create memories which enhances human memories as a whole,” she explained.
She further informed us that this all depends on the age of the child, and being aware that you need to transition between a variety of tactics and draw boundaries between fantasy play while understanding that both two factors can co-exist to help us have better experiences.
So, what are the benefits? Research on the benefit of believing in Santa Claus is sparse, but there is research indicating that there are benefits of having a vivid imagination. Believing in impossible beings like Santa Claus or a flying reindeer might also exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills. Engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from aeroplanes to the internet.
Speaking to author and educational consultant Manesha Udawatte, she stated that she doesn’t use Santa as a candy cane for her child, but rather shows him the magic of Christmas.
“My husband and I are from two different schools of thought. I’m more about instinctive motivation where they believe children should understand their actions and be schooled in such a way. My husband grew up with a reward system where Santa would only give him presents if he was a good boy the whole year, so he had the ‘naughty and nice’ list ingrained in his brain,” she shared.
She added that he is a Catholic while she is a Buddhist who has celebrated Christmas all her life. “I never had a reward system; Santa came every year, up until I was 15,” she said, adding that it was really magical for her.
Udawatte explained that they found a nice balance where they both believe in the magic of Christmas and talk about what a beautiful tradition it is to make other people happy. “I have told my son that not everyone has access to Santa Claus, so every year, we put aside his old toys and books that he has outgrown and give it away to the less fortunate,” she explained, but added that this year, he was reluctant to do so, and so she had to show him educational videos on less fortunate children and was told that he had to be their Santa, which he understood.
Every year, they give their son a single gift from Santa which is not expensive, so they can set a standard for other kids who may wonder why their gift isn’t extravagant or fancy. They engage in the tradition of writing a letter to Santa, as well as leaving out cookies, but Udawatte explained that her son understands the concept of Santa not being able to deliver to all kids and he tried to help in his own way.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive development arises from the discovery that Santa Claus is not a real physical being. Although parents often envision a singular point in time when their child demands the truth, there is often a period during which children become increasingly unsure about Santa’s existence, so it is important that it is not a figure set in stone, but a fantasy with some realism involved to avoid hurt feelings eventually.