Mommy, is Santa real?
An interview with psychologist Candice Mills, who studies how children think about Santa Claus.
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Many parents, myself included, have mixed feelings about Santa Claus. I love the magic Santa brings into our kids’ lives (and mine too!), but I sometimes feel uneasy about lying to my kids for years. How does the Santa myth affect children once they learn he’s not real? Does discovering the truth break their hearts or erode trust in their parents?
Today I’m running a Q&A with University of Texas at Dallas psychologist Candice Mills, who studies how children evaluate explanations and learn from others. One of her research arms focuses on Santa — why kids believe in Santa; why, when and how they start to disbelieve; and how they feel after they discover Santa isn’t real. When she and I spoke over the phone earlier this week, I asked her all of these questions and a handful more. Our entire fascinating conversation follows below for paid subscribers. Free subscribers get to read some of it, and can subscribe to the paid version if they’d like to read the rest.
What inspired you to study how kids think about Santa?
I am a parent myself. I have two children. And I think that living in the U.S., in this culture, we have to face the question of how do we want to celebrate Santa in our family? How are we going to approach it? And if we do choose to celebrate Santa, how are we going to approach it as they start to become skeptical?
One of my research interests is how children learn to become skeptical or learn to be critical thinkers — and it's interesting. In many cases, we want to promote critical thinking. We want kids to be rational as they're getting older and think deeply about things. But with Santa in particular, we sometimes work very hard to have them believe something that isn't real. And as I started looking into this, I was surprised by how few studies have been done looking at how children transition from belief in Santa to disbelief. And then meanwhile, I shared this on Twitter with a friend named Thalia Goldstein. And she said, “Ah, I’m interested in this, too!” And so we came together and have been asking some different questions about this process.
Let’s first talk about why kids believe so strongly in Santa. I mean, it’s such a crazy idea, isn’t it? How do we manage to convince millions of small humans of his existence, and ensure that they maintain this belief for years?
We work really hard to get kids to believe in Santa. We encourage it in terms of the stories we tell them; we take them to see Santa in the shopping mall; we bake cookies for him. We talk to other people who “know” Santa is real, so culturally, they're hearing he's real. We provide gifts from him — that's firsthand evidence that he's real. And then there's been these new apps that have been developed these last few years that do things like superimpose an image of Santa Claus in your living room.
Oh, and last year, even Dr. Fauci announced that he took a trip up to the North Pole to vaccinate Santa Claus, so Santa Claus would be able to travel around during the holidays. So we work very hard to convince kids not only that Santa is real, but we provide evidence that Santa is real, too. So I think it totally makes sense that kids believe and that it is part of our culture.
But an issue can be, for those who don't celebrate Santa, how do they handle that with their children? I have quite a few friends who are Jewish. And they've reported feeling frustrated where they feel like their job is to tell their kids to lie so the kids who believe in Santa don't get hurt. And I think we need to ask ourselves whether it's reasonable to expect families whose cultural celebrations don't include Santa Claus to tell their children to lie so that the Santa-believing children don't get upset.
Yes, that’s such a good point. It’s a huge ask. And especially for parents who might have opted against promoting Santa because it involves lying — to then feel obligated to ask their kids to lie to protect others seems unfair.
I’m curious: In Santa-promoting families, how do parents generally handle kids’ probing questions? I really struggled when my kids started asking “Is Santa real?” I would try to deflect and ask them questions back, like “What do you think?” But at some point, I was like, should I just be honest now? How do you know when it’s time to shrug your shoulders and admit he’s not real?
I don’t want to give advice, but it can be helpful for parents to have a plan on how they'll deal with questions. A favorite strategy of parents, when children ask challenging questions, is to clarify what the child is asking about first. So sometimes kids will ask questions, and it sounds like they're asking you if Santa's real, but really what they want to know is, “Is Santa going to put a present under my tree?” They don't really want to know the truth yet. And so by clarifying what they're asking — “Tell me more about what you're thinking,” or “Can you say that again, what are you wondering?” — you can see a little bit more what they're getting at. You can answer a small question, like “Is there going to be a present under the tree from Santa this year?” without getting into, “Who will be putting the Santa present under the tree?” If that's what feels right.
Other parents use generic statements, like, “People say that Santa does this.” Or they use that deflecting strategy of “What do you think?” Others feel comfortable being immersed in a pretend world, pretending with the child that Santa is real. So there's lots of paths that parents can take.
What do we know about how, why and when children stop believing in Santa?
The average age that children stop believing in Santa is eight. There's a huge amount of variation though — some kids will report it around four or five, some are closer to 12 or 13. So the average is eight, but each child's journey is different.
For most children, the process of changing their beliefs is gradual, not abrupt. For many kids, it's not just one thing that leads them to become skeptical about Santa. It's the little things that start to accumulate. So they start to recognize gaps in the Santa myth, like how does Santa fit down small chimneys? They start to ask questions about fairness, too, like why do I get a smaller gift than this other person? Or why does that person not get anything? In other cases, they're not necessarily reasoning scientifically about things — it's more that they're making observations. Like they see the wrapping paper that Santa uses in mom's closet, or they find the toy they asked Santa for in the garage. And so they're using clues like that to recognize that Santa is not real. Sometimes they hear things from peers or from parents, or they see things in movies that make them ask questions.
For many kids, it is a gradual process, in that they start to have some little doubts, but then they kind of resolve those little doubts, and then they continue on believing for a little bit longer. But eventually, they get to that point where they decide Santa’s not real.
What do you think is going on when kids both seem to believe and not believe? Like, my 7-year-old will say, “Oh my gosh, we have to make cookies for Santa.” And then 20 minutes later, she'll look at me and say, “Well, I know it's just you putting toys in the stocking.” It's like she’s two different human beings, depending on the moment! What's happening in my child's brain??
I love it. I can say descriptively that what you're describing definitely happens, where a child will sometimes sound super into it, like that they believe that it’s true, and then the next day their conversations will show some skepticism. They'll be bouncing back and forth. I don't think we have a good sense of what's going on when that happens. But I think for some of those kids in that middle elementary school age — kindergarten through first or second grade — they're getting a lot of joy from the experience. So even if they might feel like they're tiptoeing towards some skepticism, it may be that the joy sucks them back in for a bit longer.
Some kids also just don't want to know the truth yet. Or they're worried that not believing might change whether or not they get presents. Or in other cases, they're having fun, and they don't want to ruin their fun. They don't know what comes next, what the alternative might be.
Right. It could be a scary future without Santa in it. I can totally understand that.
But once kids get past that point, I think it is still really important to note that the vast majority look back on their celebrations of Santa with fondness. So I think that's good to keep in mind, even if it's not right for all families. The families who have chosen to do it, for the most part, their kids look back on it very positively.
Let’s expand on that. What have you found about how kids feel when they learn Santa isn’t real? Are they typically mad? Sad? Does it erode their trust in adults?
It really does vary quite a bit. In our study, so far, we've seen about a third to half of children reporting feeling some sadness upon discovery. There are also a number of kids who report having felt a little angry or frustrated or confused. Most of the reports are short term — like four days, or a little bit over the Christmas time period, but nothing long term, for the most part. But we've seen a small number who reported that they were absolutely devastated finding out about it, and they felt like their trust and their parents was shaken. This was very rare. And we don't know yet why those particular people took it hard.
There are some kids who also report feeling proud or happy. They’ll say, “Well, I felt like something was wrong. And I feel satisfied to know that I figured out the problem — I've solved a puzzle.” Sometimes, too, parents, when they're confirming that Santa is not real, they provide a path forward for kids to deal with their emotions — like “and now it's your turn to be a Santa.” And it can make kids feel special. So even if they might feel some sadness about the news, they also feel special that it's now their turn to do something for other people, which seems like it can be helpful.
Bottom line, though, is that even though kids sometimes report some sadness and frustration and some negative emotions, as they find out that Santa is not real, the vast majority of the kids and adults that we've talked to report that they got over it pretty quickly, and that they imagined that they would teach their children about Santa one day. And to me, that seems like an indication that most kids who go through process, even if there's some sad feelings in there, they still think it's something special.
Childhood can be challenging as you start to figure out some of the complexities of how the world works. It would be awesome if dragons were real, but they're not. There's just things that we start to learn as we get older that are complicated, right? We don't have magic the same way we would like it. It's something that can be a little hard at first, but there's also a lot of beauty to be found in different ways.
With my 10-year-old, when he learned the truth, he enjoyed being able to maintain the magic for our 7-year-old who still believes. He loves playing along and being aligned with us in maintaining this fantasy for her — he’s in this empowered position to keep this idea alive in her world. And so I feel like that's also been kind of a positive thing.
One of the things I think can be quite wonderful about the Santa traditions is the pay it forward idea, like you mentioned. There are actually some great templates out there on the internet, like on Pinterest, that talk about writing letters when your child stops believing in Santa. One of them I thought that was really cute talks about how Santa is real, but not in a way that some people think — and that Santa is bigger than any one person. Santa is lots of lots of people who try to spread a little magic. And now, it's your turn.
That's a lovely way of looking at it. Is there any reason to think that when kids do finally realize that Santa isn’t real, that this will help them with critical thinking skills? That this knowledge will then lead them to think about the world in a more rational way?
I think this is one of these really fascinating examples of how sometimes people change their beliefs. Sometimes even adults change their beliefs, right? They might have one strong religious perspective, and then fully shift to a different religious perspective. I think that there's a lot of interesting things to try to understand about that process.
In terms of whether the process of talking and learning about Santa encourages critical thinking skills, we don't know. I have heard parents talk about it to kids in that way — like, part of the Santa myth is believing in something that's bigger than yourself. And part of it is learning how to ask good questions, and to recognize when explanations aren't very clear, and then to develop that skill to use in other situations when you grow up. So some parents will certainly bring that into how they talk to their kids about Santa.
Any final thoughts? This seems like such a complicated issue.
Yes. For some parents, they aren’t worried about the idea of promoting belief in Santa. It doesn't bother them — it just feels comfortable all the way, and their kids stop believing, and it's fine. And there's others who feel some guilt and stress during the holiday season because they're worried their kid might stop believing or because they're worried they're lying to their kid, and they're trying to figure out the right balance between having joy and convincing their kids to believe. It can be a struggle for some parents to figure out what makes sense.
There are so many different ways to celebrate holidays. I don't think parents should feel guilty about celebrating Santa if that's what they choose to do, but I also don't think parents should feel guilty if they don't want to do Santa. I don't think they should feel guilty for not making that choice for their family, even if it's hard. I'm all about not having to feel guilty.
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