The Christmas season is officially upon us and kids have launched into their annual holiday interrogation: What’s a sugarplum? Do the elves make Nintendo Switches? Why does Timmy get more toys? Why do you hate our elf on a shelf? And then there’s the inevitable question, which is also the hardest: Is Santa Claus real? Deciding how to tell kids about Santa — not to mention what to tell them — can be a surprisingly tough decision. On the one hand, you never want your kid to feel like they can’t trust you. But on the other hand, you don’t want to be responsible for ruining the most wonderful day of the year.
Psychologist and parenting expert Dr. Justin Coulson thinks that parents are overcomplicating the whole thing: “Tell your kid the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” says Coulson. Fatherly spoke to Coulson at length to find out why he thinks radical truth about the myth of Santa Claus is the best for kids.
So you really advocate for nothing but being brutally truthful regarding Santa?
Yes, and the argument I use is this: Christmas is going to be exciting and fun and enjoyable whether kids know the truth about Santa or not. In the same way that I can watch a movie that I know is complete fiction and still find the movie tremendously enthralling, our children can know the truth about Santa and still find Christmas every bit as exciting.
What about people who would say telling your kid Santa isn’t real takes away some of the fun of Christmas?
I would argue the magic of Christmas can be even stronger if they know the truth about Santa from the beginning. Kids play make-believe all the time and they find joy in that. They can pretend to be superheroes, cowboys, doctors, or whatever they want. They know none of it is real but that doesn’t make playing less fun. In fact, the fantasy can genuinely add to the enjoyment. There is some great research that shows that kids with greater senses of imagination actually have a better understanding of the lines between fantasy and reality.
Do you think there’s a downside to keeping the whole Santa Claus mythos alive?
The other major reason I have for telling the truth is that when we use a coercive, manipulative strategy to get our kids to behave, we are relying on extrinsic contingencies by telling them to be good in order to get what they want. And once that motivation is gone, how do we know they’ll still feel compelled to behave? It’s morally, ethically, and scientifically dubious at best.
Research shows that kids who are lied to by their parents are more likely to lie themselves so it is always a good idea to tell the truth if possible. Don’t use Santa as a tool for motivating your kid. Letting them grow through fantasy and imagination is positive. Manipulation and lying to them are almost always negative. They’re going to figure it out in due time and there is a risk that they’ll feel like you’ve broken your trust.
So, how much thought should a parent put into the question of telling kids about Santa?
As much as I believe that you should tell your kid the truth, I don’t think this is something we need to sweat over too hard. If you’re a parent who wants your kid to believe in Santa, you aren’t going to ruin their lives so long as you make it clear Santa will always be kind to them. I don’t think there’s any real harm in perpetuating the Santa myth. My parents taught me to believe in Santa and it never hurt me. On the contrary, it was fun and magical and it made me happy. And I think that can be fantastic.
What advice do you have for parents who don’t want to have the Santa conversation?
To parents who are looking for a middle ground, I would suggest letting your child believe in Santa when they’re young and when they first start asking questions, encourage them to think about it critically. Is there really a man who is riding around on a sleigh with magic reindeer who goes to every house in the world in one night? Can he really know everyone’s behavior? Can one man eat that many cookies in one night? Let them decide for themselves. No child is going to hate Christmas if you let them figure out the truth on their own. Everything they loved about Christmas isn’t gone, the presents are just coming from a different person.
Oh, and make sure your kid knows not to ruin it for anyone else.