The jig is up. You’ve been busted, outed, revealed as the man behind the white beard and jolly laugh. Your child has come to find out the truth about Santa Claus.
All those years of eating cookies, slapping Santa’s name on gifts and even going as far as leaving footprints in the snow is over. Your baby is officially growing up.
Whether it’s through friends, their own suspicions and sleuthing or a slip up from mom or dad, finding out Santa isn’t real is no doubt a milestone for many families.
And when that moment comes, some parents are left confused on how to best handle the big reveal.
So what’s a parent to do?
Kristen Dunfield, assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University, spoke with Global News to clear the air on the Santa myth and offers tips on how and when parents can break the news to their little ones.
Believing in Santa is healthy
When it comes to deciding whether they should tell their children about the idea of Santa in the first place, some parents decide against it as they feel they’d be deceiving their kids and feel uncomfortable doing so.
However, several experts say that isn’t something parents should worry about and believe there are many benefits to fostering children’s beliefs in St. Nicholas.
According to Jacqueline Woolley, psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, allowing kids to imagine the impossible helps them with their reasoning skills and deductive reasoning abilities.
It could also help with their cognitive and emotional development, especially when kids begin to suspect that the man in red isn’t real.
“This kind of thinking – 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,” Woolley wrote in The Washington Post. “In the end, children are empowered by feeling that they have figured it out by themselves. Upon making the discovery, they become part of the adult world; they are ‘in on the secret’ and can derive even more emotional benefit by being given a role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.”
As for what age children come to this epiphany, Wolley says the belief in Santa starts to decline after age five.
The time has come
So your kid has questions about Santa. Now what?
Before you start going into panic mode, know that kids will naturally come to this conclusion on their own and should do so without their parents’ interference, says Jared Durtschi, assistant professor at Kansas State University to Medical Daily.
But there is time to prepare for when they do come to you with questions. According to Dunfield, the process of coming to that conclusion often happens over a period of time rather than in one moment.
“What they start to notice is that Santa does things that conflict with their understanding of how the world works, like how does Santa deliver presents if there’s no chimney and how does Santa travel all around the world in one night,” Dunfield says.
If the child is in the middle of the transition, one way to handle their questions is by turning it back to the child. For example, if they ask how Santa knows who’s naughty and nice, parents can ask them how they think Santa would know.
“Children’s learning is very similar to the scientific method,” Dunfield explains. “They start with some type of understanding, acquire observation which either supports their current understanding and they hang on to it, or it conflicts with their current understanding and so they revise it. It’s those observations of impossible acts, the accumulation of those impossible questions and their observations that’s related to how children start to revise their beliefs in Santa.”
What to do
If parents have more than one child, Dunfield advises to clear the air with the older child once they find out, especially if the younger children are still very much believers.
This could mean setting boundaries and discussing how to navigate the situation so the younger children can still enjoy the tradition.
Should the secret slip out, take it step by step.
“Having a warm and open conversation gives the kid an opportunity to work through it and it’s probably going to be much better for the child,” she says. “Make sure you have the time to have the discussion and follow it through to the end and the child is left satisfied and has an understanding of what’s going on.”
It’s a good idea to also have a grasp on what you believe in as an adult when it comes to Christmas and Santa, Dunfield says.
For Dunfield, the idea of St. Nick is not so much about consumerism, but rather a symbol for family and love. And that type of explanation can go a long way.
“Santa isn’t totally dissimilar to other myths (like the tooth fairy) we tell our kids,” she says. “And when we’re regularly exposed to things that challenge our beliefs and our understanding about how the world works, it gives you space to entertain more possibility.”
She adds, “And I think we owe it to our kids to have a little bit of magic in their lives.”