When it comes to discovering the hidden "truth" about Santa Claus, let's get one thing out of the way: Santa is real.
Historical records detailing his story stretch all the way back to the third century, when St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children. A science reporter, 21 years ago, made the argument that Father Christmas's magic is legitimate because he is, in fact, a macroscopic quantum object – and that a famous "two-slit" experiment in physics all but proves he can visit so many children around the world in one night, provided he does so unseen. Oh, and proof that even the federal government even recognizes the jolly fellow? The United States Postal Service delivers letters addressed to him to the North Pole.
Still, it's an all-but-certain eventual rite of passage for kiddos to wonder about his magic and question his validity. Parents, most all of whom have grown up to be disbelievers themselves, are also concerned about deceiving their children (to be fair, Kristen Bell made a pretty good case for questioning the whole Santa tradition). So, what's the right move when pondering the age-old question, "Is Santa real?" We tasked a child development expert to help explain how to teach kids — of varying ages and growth stages — the truth about Santa Claus.
When Do Children Start Questioning If Santa Is Real?
Kristene Geering, who in addition to being the content director of e-learning app Parent Lab is a mom of twins and someone who takes the tradition of Santa very seriously in her own home, encourages parents to take a developmental approach to their children's relationship with Santa.
She noted that children move from concrete concepts, rooted in magic, to more abstract ones, pinned in reality, as they grow, and that with Santa, most kids transition through three levels of understanding.
"Toddlers and preschoolers are all about the magical and unlikely to question much. Then, in elementary ... you'll start to get more questions as your child's thinking becomes more complex."
First is concrete awareness. Next up? "Toddlers and preschoolers are all about the magical and unlikely to question much," she told POPSUGAR. "Then, in elementary, more logical thinking is starting to come online and you'll start to get more and more questions as your child's thinking becomes more complex."
When her kids were very little and in that first stage of more baseline understanding, Santa was simply a man in a red suit. "He was the guy with the hat and he ate the cookies and the reindeer nibbled the carrots we left out and it was all fine," she said. "But as they got older, we started talking more about the logic of it all."
It's at that stage in which they start figuring out the rules of the world that parents can begin to expect the more tactical questions. How can he go to that many houses in one night? How does Santa know how to make and package every single toy? What about kids who don't celebrate Christmas?
"That's when we started talking about the magic behind it," she explained.
How Should Parents Answer Questions About Santa?
Although Geering said every family finds their own way to approach Santa, she has a useful tip for parents with curious kiddos.
"Remember to keep things as simple as possible and always refer back to the magic of giving," she said. "Also, asking questions of your kids can give you a great idea where they are in their thinking."
If your child asks how Santa can be at the mall and at the zoo and at their classmate's church all at the same time, you could certainly explain that Santa employs many helpers this time of year. But you can also get a better sense of your child's understanding by saying: "That's a very good question! Santa is so busy these days – how do you think he's in so many places at once?"
The same goes for Santa hitting up so many houses on one night ("It's amazing, isn't it? How do you think he does it?") and Santa giving some children a bunch of expensive gifts and others something small ("You know Santa loves you or he wouldn't have brought you a gift. Why do you think Santa gives different kids different things?" For this tricky one, she suggests following it up with a bit more on gratitude: "Santa's biggest gift is always love and kindness. He loves you and was thinking of you, and any time someone shows their love by giving us something, we can always be grateful.").
As with all questions, Geering recommends parents "match your child's development with how you respond" and suggests providing some answers to help their child's understanding – whether it's a fun explanation for how Santa's sleigh is powered or why Santas might look different for different families.
In general, though, if your child poses a question about Santa that you just can't rationalize, Geering's solution is to simply say: "It's a special kind of magic Santa has, isn't it? Do you ever feel that magic when you do something kind for others?"
What Can Parents Do When Kids Learn the Truth About Santa?
At some point, kids "stop believing" in Santa, usually somewhere between 7 and 10 years old.
As Geering's children got older, their family delved further into the definition of magic, what it really means, and what things in life they find magical.
"Understanding the science behind a rainbow doesn't make it any less magical to see one, and understanding the mechanics of Santa doesn't make that act of giving any less magical, either."
"Most of those things have to do with presence, love, and selflessness," she said. "This year, I asked the kids where they were in the whole Santa thing, and my daughter explained that she thinks it's more the magic of giving and that this magic can really inhabit anyone, and it might be that her parents had been playing Santa all along but that was OK because the magic is still there."
Similarly, she advises other parents to treat the "truth" about Santa less as the end of a belief and more of the start of a new tradition to carry on.
"Help your child keep in mind that different families have different beliefs, and that's OK," she said. "For older siblings, helping them truly embody that spirit of giving can give them a taste of what that magic really is. If an older child has a deeper understanding of the spirit of Santa, help them plan out the stocking for another person this year, or let them be a 'secret Santa' for someone in the community. Talk to them about how wonderful it feels to give this present to that person, to think about what that person wants and needs. Help them find that sense of magic and wonder."
How Do Parents Avoid Telling Kids Lies About Santa?
Nevertheless, many parents are adamant that they never lie to their children, and the idea of encouraging a belief in Santa Claus feels like deception.
In fact, often, a parent's own past experiences can greatly impact how they feel about Santa. Geering suggests using ParentLab's three-dimensional approach to parenting to dig in there: "How did you feel when you learned the 'truth?' Does that carry forward for you now?" In understanding aspects a parent may not want to replicate, they may be able to find a new way to approach the concept of Santa in their family that will actually bring them closer together.
As for common concerns about "playing along" or being dishonest, "I sincerely believe you don't have to lie," Geering said. "Your child's concept of 'Santa' will mature as they do. If your position is to help guide them through the developmental stages of Santa, of understanding that love and kindness are their own special magic, and that magic looks different at different stages of life, you aren't deceiving them at all."
She added: "Remember that over time, Santa goes from being a real-live human person to the abstract concept of kindness and giving — a concept your child can embody themselves. Understanding the science behind a rainbow doesn't make it any less magical to see one, and understanding the mechanics of Santa doesn't make that act of giving any less magical, either."
So, there you have it! Santa — and his magic — are as real as a rainbow.