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Santa Claus: Naughty or Nice?

Telling your kids that Santa Claus is real is a lie, but does it actually hurt them?

The Jury on Santa

Small studies from the United States and Canada suggest that virtually all children know about Santa Claus, even if they do not view him as a real person. A significant percentage of believers discovered the truth behind the tale around age 7. Only half of kids aged 8 to 11 reported believing in Santa.

When they did find out the truth, most of them reacted in a positive manner. Two out of three kids said they felt a sense of pride in figuring out the truth about Santa Claus. Half of them said that although the jolly guy was not real, they liked the idea of him.

Yet there are also various anecdotal reports on Internet chat boards about how the truth has disillusioned or even traumatized people. One mother said she was greatly disappointed when she realized who Santa was, but was more upset that her parents "forced" her to perpetuate the "lie." Her parents had said children who do not believe in Santa Claus do not get any presents.

The way children experience Santa depends on how he is represented to them, says Benjamin Siegel, MD, FAAP, professor of pediatrics at the Boston University Medical School. "If Santa Claus represents someone who is nurturing, good, thoughtful, and generous ... then it's a joyful (experience)."

Shari Kuchenbecker, PhD, a research psychologist and author of Raising Winners, says when her children were young, she told them Santa Claus was a symbol of loving, giving, and hope. "I never said Santa Claus was a real person," she said, stressing how important it is never to lie to children.

"Always tell the truth as you know it. That doesn't mean being explicit beyond what a child wants to know," says Kuchenbecker. To prove her point, she shares a story of a little girl who asks her mother what "sex" is. The flustered parent tries her best to explain the meaning of the word to her daughter, but at the end of the long lecture, the girl says she simply wanted to know what the difference was between males and females.

Children are apparently good at picking up what they need to know at the appropriate time. When they are ready to learn, it's a good idea for parents to be available as a resource.

Parents who strongly believe that they are betraying their children's trust by sharing the Santa Claus tale probably do not need to tell them the story, says Robert Feldman, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has conducted extensive research on lying and deception.

Keep in mind, though, that in the overall scale of deception, propagating the Santa myth is no worse than saying things like "You look terrific," or "You haven't gained weight," or "What a great dress," says Feldman, noting that people generally use lies as a social crutch.

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