As the winter holidays approach, Santa Claus and Elf on the Shelf are on the minds of many children who celebrate Christmas.
Many parents’ thoughts also drift there, but for different reasons.
Parents of young children wonder whether they should promote the myth of the jolly old man in the red suit or that tiny, habitually rotating curious elf, while parents of older children wonder what they’re going to say when their child asks for the truth.
Underlying both of these questions is a larger one: Is it good for kids to believe in things like Santa Claus? As a developmental psychology researcher, I say yes, because there are benefits for cognitive and emotional development (as for Elf on the Shelf, I’ll get to that in a moment).Believing in impossible beings may exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills. The kind of thinking involved in imagining how nine reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease.
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.
Believing in Santa also exercises children’s deductive reasoning abilities and their use of evidence. We discovered in a recent study that older children might be better able than younger children to use, for example, the half-eaten cookies on Christmas morning as evidence for Santa’s existence.
In our study, we taught children about a novel fantastical being, the Candy Witch, who visits children’s houses on Halloween night and replaces their candy with a new toy. Older children, who woke up to find their candy gone and a new toy in its stead, were more likely to assert that the Candy Witch really exists.
Their advanced understanding of evidence led them to interpret the simultaneous disappearance of the candy and appearance of the toy as proof of the Candy Witch’s existence.
But perhaps the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive and emotional development may arise from the discovery that Santa Claus is not, in fact, a real physical being.
Many parents envision a sudden point in time at which their child demands the truth, but the discovery process is often more gradual. In fact, there is often a protracted period during which children become increasingly less sure about Santa’s existence. Toward the end of this period, children may actually look for evidence to confirm their suspicions.
This is where parents can help. A parent who had disguised her handwriting on the presents from Santa can use her own handwriting. Or she can put a few “from Santa” presents under the tree the night before.
Once children are beginning to doubt, they become very scientific about the whole thing, and in some cases even set up their own experiments. For instance, my daughter left a camera and a note next to the milk and cookies, requesting that Santa take a picture of himself and leave it for her as evidence.
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.
For other children with differing beliefs, or those who still believe in Santa (while your children may not), parents would do well to emphasize that there are a lot of ways to celebrate Christmas and discuss the special ways your family chooses to celebrate the holiday versus others. Framing that discussion in terms of different beliefs and different ways to celebrate may make it easier to avoid the “is he real?’/is he pretend?” discussion. Parents may be concerned that once their children learn the “truth” about Santa, they might say things to other kids that would cause them to question their beliefs, which actually may not be a bad thing in and of itself. Yet it might anger other parents who wish to preserve these beliefs.
Just because children get all the presents, do they also reap all the benefits of believing in Santa? Maybe. But maybe not, because engaging with cultural myths allows adults to vividly recall their own childhood sense of wonder and to create fun opportunities for their loved ones.
In the end, the whole family benefits. Children grow emotionally and cognitively, and parents get to spend a bit of their own time imagining the impossible.
The original form of this op-ed first appeared here, in the online version of Texas Perspectives, of The University of Texas at Austin.