When Santa Stops Being Real

When your child starts guessing the truth about St. Nick.

4 min read
Every holiday season for the last three years, my nine-year-old son Justin has asked me straight out if there is a Santa Claus. Every time I say no. But every year he still wants to sit on Santa's lap -- the "real" Santa, that is, the one at the mall with the best decorations, not those impostors at the other malls. And he delights at finding a few of Rudolph's stray sleigh bells in the fireplace on Christmas morning.

Even if you haven't actively cultivated your children's acceptance of the Santa Claus myth, chances are good -- thanks to the magic of Christmas TV specials and slick holiday advertising -- that they believe in the man who knows if they've been naughty or nice.

So what happens when a child's logic -- or perhaps a friend -- reveals a few inconsistencies in the jolly old man's story? How do you know when it's time to let your children in on the big secret?

"There's really no one right time to tell kids that there's no Santa Claus," says Glen Elliott, Ph.D. Elliott is an associate professor and the Director of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. "The important thing is to take your cues from the child, and not try to prolong the fantasy for your own enjoyment when they may be ready to give it up."

Like Elliott, many experts agree that parents should wait for their children to give them signs that they're ready to give up believing in St. Nick. "When children start putting together in their minds that Santa Claus may not be real, they'll ask questions -- and that's an opening for parents to get them talking about what's logical or not to them," says Helen Egger, Ph.D., a Child Psychologist at the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychology at Duke University.

For instance, your daughter might start getting suspicious about the three different Santas they see during the course of a day of shopping. Or your son might ask questions about how Santa can get to every house in the world in one night, or how they get into houses with no chimneys.

"A friend of my son's spilled the beans about Santa last year," recalls Caroline Jennings of Bellevue, Wash., mother of a seven-year-old. "Ian came home asking if we are really the ones who buy his Christmas presents. We made a joke of it and said, 'You know we're too cheap to buy you presents!' But we also asked him about what he thinks. What it came down to is that Ian knows there's no Santa, but he really doesn't want us to come out and say it and ruin his holiday fantasy."

Just as kids give you signals when they're ready to give up Santa, they also let you know when they're not. "If your child isn't ready to hear the truth, they simply won't accept it -- or if they're very young, they may truly not even comprehend what you are saying," says Egger. She knows from experience: When her children were six and three years old, she inadvertently read them a story that explicitly said there is no Santa. When the story was over, she found that the message hadn't registered with either child.

Elliott and Egger agree that the key issue is not so much when to break the news to your child -- their peers will probably take care of that -- but how to convert the belief in Santa into other expressions of the holiday spirit.

"Tell your child that the rituals associated with Santa are just one way of expressing the joy of giving and your love for them," says Egger. "If you have younger kids, let the older ones be responsible for stuffing stockings and being Santa's helper."

This year, my son Justin still wants to put out cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, but he also wants to be the one to put the jingle bells in the fireplace for his six-year-old brother, Drew. He wants to play Santa himself, too, and donate some toys to a day care center for homeless children. I think a part of him will always believe in Santa, but he's also finding more mature ways to express the Christmas spirit.