Whether kids believe a bearded fat man delivers their Christmas presents is a matter of odd importance to parents, often more so than to the children themselves. We want our kids to believe in Santa — the question is why. It’s certainly not because an early introduction to divine retribution makes them behave any better. Interestingly, some psychologists suspect that our investment in the Santa Claus myth may be due to our own fond memories of childhood, and magic long forgotten.
“Parents don’t see Santa as a lie they tell their children, they see it as part of the fantasy of childhood,” Kryss Shane, a family psychologist, told Fatherly. “Memories of the parent’s own childhood encourages the parent to work to make the season feel whimsical and magical.”
Children generally stop believing in Santa around age 8, according to past research. While some experts argue that lying about Santa could cause trust issues between parents and kids, studies show that when children stop believing in Santa, they’re not nearly as sad about it as their parents. There’s even evidence that, after kids stop believing in Santa, they often continue to go through the motions along with it because they don’t want to disappoint their parents.
Which means Santa stands as an awkward problem in many families with older kids. Shane suggests softening the blow for both parties by reframing Santa as a vessel for the holiday spirit instead of a fantasy (or fraud). As children age out of believing in him in a literal sense, parents can find ways to encourage their kids to “play Santa” by engaging in random acts of kindness.
“It can also help the child to understand that the love and kindness of the season comes from how we treat each other, regardless of whether someone is visited by Santa,” Shane says.
It’s important to note that every family is different and there are individual factors that could compel parents to put added pressure on the Santa fantasy, such as co-parenting after a divorce. But in general, parents want their kids to believe in Santa because it’s something meaningful from their childhood that they want to hand down. It gives moms and dads a chance to relive those special moments through a different lens while feeling like they’re doing a really good job.
“Watching the children enjoy and believe often gives parents a sense of doing parenting right, a feeling that many may question throughout their parenting time,” Shane says.