“You better watch out, you better not cry …”
I have three children and have no shame in admitting I’ve pulled the Santa-is-watching card out of my lazy parent toolbox more times than I can count. Unfortunately, my little progeny eventually wised up. In learning the truth about Santa, they also figured out that movement from his nice list to the naughty list might not be such an imminent threat after all.
Reaching this important milestone can be bittersweet for parents. We see that our children are growing, learning to think for themselves and becoming more aware of the world around them. We also realize that we have to come up with an explanation for the Christmas con game we’ve played on our kids for years.
I turned to a professional to offer a little guidance on how and when sharing the secret about Santa can be done without crushing children’s dreams or losing our parenting edge. Kimberly Thornton, LCSW, a therapist with the Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital adolescent program, recently answered a few questions on the matter.
What is the right age to tell a child the truth about Santa?
If your child asks the question about whether Santa is real, then they are ready to hear the answer. Use your own judgment on how much to share, as this will vary upon your family’s culture and the age of your child.
How should we tell them?
Start with asking them to share their own thoughts about the true reason for the holiday. Many children will have surprising answers. For example, when my niece was 4 or 5, her mother asked her, “Who makes the world beautiful?” thinking her reply would be, “God.” Instead, she said, “My Aunt Kim does.” Or they may have their own explanation on how Santa gets into a house without a chimney!
Children see our world differently than we do and their response will help guide your response. Perhaps it’s as simple as sharing that the holiday is about giving and that’s what Santa represents. It can be celebrated by believing Santa delivers presents, giving gifts to others or simply being kind to one another, which also includes children behaving well for their parents.
What should we do if children learn the truth about Santa before they’re ready — or we’re ready for them — to find out?
If they hear the truth elsewhere — maybe not in the best way — reassure them they can continue to believe, have faith and celebrate the holiday the way they have always enjoyed. Another child’s “truth” about the holiday does not have to be their truth.
Use an analogy they can understand. For example, I may believe my parents are the best parents in the entire world, while another person is certain their parents are the best. Neither of us is wrong; our beliefs are simply our own.
Are secrets — such as those about whether Santa or the Tooth Fairy are real — good for kids, or does it damage their willingness to trust us?
Every generation passes on mystical or folkloric stories to its children. These are stories about our beliefs and our culture. Santa and the Tooth Fairy — or other legendary characters associated with holidays or special milestones — are a part of many cultures.
Keeping the story alive should not be considered keeping a secret, but rather a traditional way we celebrate together. It is all about having fun and expressing our family values, love and connection to each other.