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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 continued...

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.

"We actually teach our kids that deception is acceptable," says Feldman. For example, he says parents often ask their children to pretend they like gifts from relatives to spare the feelings of family members.

Children are also resilient and can usually overcome any negative feelings related to discovering the real Santa. "It's no worse than telling them about the three bears, or Goldilocks, or Cinderella, or anything else. It's a story and when they get older, they understand that it was only a fairy tale," says George Cohen, MD, FAAP, clinical professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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