Every year, parents of young children have an important decision to make, even more important than which presents to buy or what to cook for Christmas dinner. Parents must either commit to the Santa myth or attempt to survive without it in a culture in which it is deeply, and often passionately, embedded. It’s a decision that raises angst and generates heated discussions among people of all ages.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
Some parents are concerned that engaging their children with the Santa story constitutes lying. To them, not only does this feel unethical, it raises concerns regarding whether their children will lose trust in them once they discover the truth. But studies say otherwise. They report that, in fact, most children respond positively to the discovery, and that any emotional upset is extremely short-lived.
Another perspective is that telling your child about Santa doesn’t require lying at all — parents are simply encouraging their children’s participation in a fantasy. In taking children to see “Frozen,” in reading them “Harry Potter” books, in dressing them up for Halloween, we’re involving children in fantasy worlds. With certain excursions into the realm of the fantastical, the benefits can justify the means — like how the father in the movie “Life is Beautiful” convinces his young son that the concentration camp is really a game in which he can earn points to win a tank.
This bending of the truth saves the child’s life. Parents have to decide for themselves: Do the benefits of telling children about Santa outweigh the potential costs?
So, what are the benefits? Research on the benefit of believing in Santa Claus is sparse, but there is research indicating that there are benefits of having a vivid imagination. Believing in impossible beings like Santa Claus or flying reindeer might also exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills. Engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the internet.
Perhaps the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive development arises from the discovery that Santa Claus is not a real physical being. Although parents often envision a singular point in time when their child demands the truth, there is often a protracted period during which children become increasingly unsure about Santa’s existence. Toward the end of this period, children may actually look for evidence to confirm their suspicions, or in some cases even set up their own experiments.
My daughter left a camera and a note next to the milk and cookies, requesting that Santa take a picture of himself and leave it for her. I recommend that, once parents sense that their children are beginning to doubt, they help them make the discovery on their own.
For example, if you think that your child is ready for the truth, instead of disguising your handwriting on the presents “from Santa,” use your own handwriting. Conspicuously place a few “from Santa” presents under the tree the night before. Let your child feel proud that she figured it out. Children are, after all, little scientists. Upon making the discovery, they become part of the adult world — they are “in on the secret” — and can also derive emotional benefit by being given an adult role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.
In the end, even if there are no cognitive benefits of believing, or disbelieving, in Santa Claus, just the fact that it’s fun might be good enough. And it’s not just fun for children. Adults also often crave opportunities to be transported into fictional worlds. Whether you consider it a “white lie,” a lie whose benefits outweigh its costs, or simply a chance to collectively imagine the impossible, bringing Santa into your family at Christmas can make a special time a little more special.
Jacqueline Woolley is a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.