The Experts on the Santa Lie
"You don't want the child to feel like they've been lied to," agrees Dr. Tracy R. Gleason, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Wellesley College. "This is different from a lie. It is not an intentional deception designed to hurt someone. It is designed to give them something to enjoy." Yes, that's right. This is a myth. Myths have been an important part of most cultures since the beginning of time. They serve a purpose so deep we probably can't fully articulate it. But they certainly convey a concept that's important to our culture—past and present. This one has been evolving for centuries and is about the power of generosity, giving to others, caring for our fellow human, etc. It's also—in no small part—about selling toys. But it is not a mere lie.
The trick, says Dr. Gleason, is to position Santa Claus so that when you take him away there is still plenty left of the holiday to enjoy—and to let Santa go slowly as your child is ready to release him. Kids usually stop believing in Santa when they are about eight; that's when they are able to reason logically. But the age can vary depending on factors as out of your control as older siblings who spoil the fun, their own desire to perpetuate the myth, and their personal need for things to have a logical explanation. They can start asking about it, though, as soon as they can formulate the question.
Mom, Is Santa Real?
Handling that question is a bit tricky, and there is no single way to deal with it. You can follow this rule though: The first time your child asks, "Is Santa real?" don't just spill it. "You don't have to make the full transition in one year," says Dr. Gleason. "One year your child might realize Santa can't really go to all those houses in one night. The next year it might be something else. Take your cues from the child." And keep in mind that each child is different. Some will want to know definitively one way or the other. Another might ask even though they are not at all ready to hear the truth.
Instead of blurting out, "Yep, the whole thing is just a con intended to make you obey!" Ask a question: "What do you think?" That way you can do a little spying of your own and glean what she's looking for before you blow your cover. And don't underestimate the power of a child's desire to believe—just because she wants to. I believed in Santa until I was nine, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. For one thing my siblings and I knew where my parents hid the presents. We played with them for weeks before Christmas—every time my oldest brother got the job of babysitting. I was at the age of logical reason noted by experts for a year (and had been getting a sneak peak for longer) before I chose to give up the fat guy. I just refused to think about it.