The Santa myth: To tell or not to tell

The Santa myth: To tell or not to tell


In 1947, Natalie Wood played a cheeky little girl, Susan Walker, who didn’t believe in Santa Claus in “A Miracle on 34th Street.” As the plot progressed, she realized the mythical Santa Claus was actually a real person bunking with her next-door neighbor. The question that lingers even today is, should Susan’s mother have agreed that there was no such thing as Santa Claus?

Around this time of year, many parents struggle. Do they tell their children Santa is a myth or do they let the magic live on for another year?

On Christmas Eve, setting out cookies and milk for Santa and, of course, carrots for the reindeer, has become an exciting tradition for some families. Children’s minds and hearts are consumed with anticipation, doubt and finally confirmation when those cookies mysteriously turn to crumbs and the carrots disappear overnight. Sometimes even reindeer antlers and hoof prints are discovered in the snow.

In the past, parents allowed the belief in Santa to continue until their children discovered for themselves the “real” truth, while other parents went all-out to prove to their children Santa was the real deal.

Now, there is a new trend. There are moreparents who do not allow their children to believe in Santa Claus. These parents think allowing children to believe in Santa is the equivalent of lying to them.

According to Dr. Lela Joscelyn, professor in the psychology department, when children reach about 8 years old, they enter the concrete operational stage where they begin to see different points of view and understand more realistic thinking. At this stage, the magical thinking that developed in earlier stages begins to fade. Oftentimes, the belief in Santa tends to fade as well.

“I also find that adults like to still play with the idea, you know, and maybe that’s why they encourage children to believe in it,” Joscelyn said. “Sometimes, parents are living through their children.”

Parenting styles can also play a part in whether a child believes in Santa.

According to Joscelyn, some parents may opt to belittle their child’s thoughts and opinions, especially when asked a question that may have deep roots in that child’s beliefs. This type of parenting is called authoritarian.

Other parents may use a permissive style of parenting, in which they try to be their child’s best friend. With Santa, they might feel an obligation to uphold the magic of Santa in order to spare their child’s feelings.

The balance between these two is called authoritative. This style allows the parent and the child to negotiate with honesty and communication. In this case, a parent and a child have open communication not only about Santa, but also their thoughts, their feelings and their beliefs.

“We always treated Santa like a character, like Mickey Mouse,” said Pamela Nordvall, a mother of two boys who is a librarian and textbook coordinator at Ronald W. Reagan College Preparatory High School on Milwaukee’s South Side. “My oldest figured it out when he was 3 and I just couldn’t lie to my kids.”

Nordvall still made the holidays magical. She took her kids to see Santa and watched the Christmas specials with them. Santa was just like Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph, a character that was part of the season but did not represent the whole season.

“The kids had their own little secret, because we always told them not tell other kids about Santa,” Nordvall said. “But I think they liked that. It was something special that only they knew.”

Latangela Thompson, a sociology student, has an 11-year-old daughter who started to question Santa.

“She wrote a letter to Santa asking for an iPad, a laptop and all those things,” Thompson said. “She still gets excited. I just can’t take that joy away from her.”

When it comes right down to it, there is no right or wrong answer to the Santa myth. Each child and family is different and will respond to this topic differently.

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