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When I was 7 years old, I was a True Believer in Santa Claus. One of my closest friends wasn't, though, and when he insisted that the Jolly Old Elf was a lie, I was shaken — so much so that, when my parents reassured me that my friend was wrong, I didn't quite believe them.
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On Christmas Eve, we were invited to a party at that friend's house. I stuck close to my dad for the entire day (and bossed my younger brother into following my mom around the house), and we made sure that there was absolutely nothing under the tree when we left for the party. Once at my friend's house, I continued to shadow my parents, to see whether they left the party for any reason. They didn't.
Read on to find out how to keep the faith of Santa alive.
Yet when we came home late that night, the presents were there. And my faith was restored. It wasn't until years later my dad confessed that, when he "ran back inside because he forgot the bottle of wine," he had frantically thrown gifts under the tree and returned to the car in record time.
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When I finally found out the truth, I didn't feel betrayed. I felt grateful that they had gone to such lengths to allow me to believe in something that made me happy. Many parents worry that they're hurting their children by "lying" about Santa, but psychologists, pediatricians, and other child-care experts agree that it rarely harms kids in the long run.
"It's no worse than telling them about the three bears, or Goldilocks, or Cinderella, or anything else," Dr. George Cohen, a clinical professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., told WebMD. "It's a story and when they get older, they understand that it was only a fairy tale."
Others point out that "lying" about Santa is no different than encouraging kids to pretend to like something in order to spare someone's feelings. "We actually teach our kids that deception is acceptable," said Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
It's now more than 30 years later, and I'm a mom and step mom with five kids ranging from college student to kindergartener. Our family has dealt with The Santa Question many times, usually when a child is 7 or 8 years old. I've found that, when some of our kids asked whether Santa is real, they were seeking reassurance, not questioning his existence. One caught us in the act by finding an unwrapped present hidden in the closet and then seeing it appear under the tree; in that case, a confession was in order.
They usually start by asking whether the Santas at the malls and in front of the grocery store are really him. I tell them that those people are Santa's helpers, and that when they grow up, they may be able to be helpers, too. But when they're pushing for the truth, I give it to them: Santa is the personification of ideals and feelings that are real, just like love is real, I tell them. No single person is Santa Claus, I explain, but together we all help to make the spirit of the season strong. And now that they know the truth, they can be Santa's helpers, too, charged with spreading good cheer and kindness to others. They can help shop for gifts, plan the surprise, and stay up late — and then revel in the wide-eyed wonder of their younger siblings. So far, the transition from believer to helper has gone smoothly.
For most kids, their understanding of Santa evolves over time, until the truth just makes sense without inflicting trauma.
"Research in the 1960s demonstrated that a child's conceptualization of Santa goes through a series of adjustments where their information about Christmas gets reorganized — it doesn't simply disappear," Carole S. Slotterback, author of "The Psychology of Santa," wrote in the New York Times. "Of the several hundred students I surveyed, only one indicated any distress: her father told her that Santa had had a heart attack and died — NOT an approach I would recommend!"
So what should you do when your child asks The Santa Question? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Find out why they're asking. Did a friend at school declare that Santa isn't real? Are they wondering how he delivers so many presents in so little time? Some kids are simply seeking reassurance, while others are trying to figure out the logistics. Reassure the ones who need it.
Ask your child what he or she thinks. If she says that she thinks Santa is real, then she's not ready to hear you say that he's not.
Talk about the real meaning of Christmas. Beyond the religious significance of the holiday, Christmas is about kindness, wonder, and giving. If your child is seeking the truth, and not just reassurance, explain that Santa is the embodiment of those ideas, and that when a small child believes in Santa, he's actually learning to appreciate the importance of them.
Give your child a promotion. To reinforce that the spirit of the holidays are more important than an actual Santa, promote your child from true believer to Santa's helper. Plan a way to show kindness to others, choose a toy to give to Toys for Tots or another charity, and enlist her help in keeping the Christmas spirit alive for younger siblings and friends.
Tell them to let their other kids decide for themselves. Each family has a different point of view about whether or not their children should believe in Santa. If your child does not believe, but his friends do, tell him that it's up to his friends' parents to tell them the truth.
Remember that Santa is not mandatory. Each family is different — some are fine with the idea of Santa monitoring behavior, while others are horrified that Santa could be used as a scare tactic. Some feel that he's an innocent way to teach kids about kindness, others feel that it promotes commercialism and materialism. Ultimately, it's a personal choice: If you feel that you will harm your child by encouraging them to believe in Santa, then don't do it.
— Lylah M. Alphonse
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