Santa Claus: Naughty or Nice?

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

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
6 min read

This year, Mikio plans to write a letter to Santa Claus, as he's done since he can remember, and leave his North Pole visitor some milk and cookies.

"He's a man with a white beard who delivers presents and flies with reindeer," says the 8-year-old. "I think he's a cool guy."

Mikio is one of millions of children who eagerly anticipate the jolly old soul's magical trip around the world. Every December, kids hear the story of a red-clad, robust man who enters homes through chimneys and doles out gifts to well-behaved youngsters.

No doubt the tale has generated excitement in many households. A brief review of comments from some online message boards, however, reveals that the Santa notion also elicits its share of cringes:

  • "I will never teach my children about the myth of Santa, because he is not the reason we celebrate Christmas."

  • "You teach your kids not to lie and yet we lie to them right away about Santa and the Easter Bunny."

  • "The truth is some kids get nothing for Christmas, because there really is no Santa and some parents cannot scrape up the extra dough. The child that gets told Santa loves and gives to everybody will wonder what is wrong with them."

  • "Why would anyone want to make the nice gesture of buying and wrapping the perfect gift, only to give the credit to a fictional character?"

Roberto, a San Francisco Bay-area father, says family and friends have already told his 2-year-old daughter about Santa Claus. Yet he does not plan to further promote the story because the consumerism produced by the holidays bothers him.

"When Christmas or Fourth of July comes around, these figures symbolize that holiday, but they also propagate sales," he says. "To have Abraham Lincoln be responsible for a President's Day sale is ludicrous."

The 32-year-old father says he won't stop his daughter from believing in Santa Claus if she chooses to, but he wants her to know that holidays can be engineered to encourage spending. Instead of focusing on Santa Claus during the holidays, he says he will encourage his daughter to cherish family time.

Any thought of hooking Santa Claus away from the holiday stage is enough to make some parents roll their eyes or throw up their hands in outrage.

"Why on earth are we in such a hurry to take away the innocence and magic that exists in childhood?" says one parent in an online message board.

"Let children be children for as long as possible!" says another parent.

Like-minded mothers and fathers say they would never deny their kids the joy brought on by belief in Kris Kringle. There are those who declare that Christmas wouldn't be the same without good ole St. Nick.

Who's right and who's wrong? Could the Santa Claus tale actually hurt kids? Or is it harmless fun? WebMD placed Santa on the naughty or nice checklist and asked child psychology and development experts what they thought about the twinkle-eyed gent.

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.

"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.

Very young children live in an imaginary world, and that world is reality for them. "Little kids think there actually might be a monster in their closet or a dragon under their bed," says Douglas Kramer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. "It seems real to them, so it's got to be real."

At ages 1 through 4, children can comprehend tangible things such as sleigh, reindeer, and Santa Claus as a real person, Kramer explains. These kids cannot yet grasp abstract concepts.

At 4 to 6 years old, Kramer says children may begin questioning whether Santa Claus is a real person. It is not until kids are about 6 to 8 that they may be ready to understand that Santa Claus is real, but not in a concrete sense. Their ability to think abstractly begins developing at this time and continues on until they are about 14 years old.

In all ages, a good imagination is important, but it's crucial for very young children. They simply cannot do without a good fantasy life, says Carolyn Saarni, PhD, a developmental psychologist and professor of counseling at Sonoma State University in California.

"Play is central to cognitive development," says Saarni. "You can master the world through your ability to manipulate things in fantasy. Play allows you to kind of practice what you would do in the real world."

A little girl who is playing with a doll, for instance, may try to imitate her mother's nurturing ways. In her pretend world, she is practicing what she would do in certain situations.

Tasha Howe, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., says parents can use fantasy to encourage children's critical and independent thinking. When children ask questions related to Santa Claus, such as "Is there really a Santa Claus?" or "How do reindeer fly?" she suggests encouraging little ones to come up with their own explanations.

There is no scientific research indicating the Santa tale can be helpful or harmful to kids, says Howe. So when her students who are parents ask her whether or not they should promote the Santa tale, she simply responds, "It's a personal choice. Whatever choice you make, I don't think it's going to harm your child."