Can Lying About Santa Now Hurt Your Child Later?

Here’s what a psychologist has to say about the seasonal white lie.

by Dave Baldwin
Originally Published: 
A child stands beside Santa with a Christmas tree in the background.
VladGans/E+/Getty Images

Lying to kids about Santa Claus is as much a part of Christmas as eggnog and yuletide. Parents have been doing it for hundreds of years, not to mention going to great, often ridiculous lengths to keep the ruse alive. It’s tradition, it’s fun, and the thought of a large bearded man sliding down the chimney to steal cookies has brought great happiness to kids the world over. Not only that, but Santa has the impressive power of keeping kids on the straight and narrow for months leading up to the holidays. What parent could oppose that?

Which is why most parents, it’s safe to assume, see little harm in perpetuating the Santa myth. What’s a little white lie once a year ⏤ accompanied by an extensive amount of inconvenience ⏤ in the name of your kid’s happiness and good behavior? But childhood glee aside, as a parent you can’t help but wonder whether years of lying to your children about Santa could screw them up in the head. Or, at the least, cause some minor psychological issues?

Despite a much-circulated 2016 article in the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry that argued lying about Santa does, in fact, harm children, there’s scant evidence and nary a major study to back up the claim. So rest easy: Telling your 6-year-old that jolly old Saint Nick, not you, brought them that race car set is unlikely to result in any lasting damage.

“For the most part, I don’t think that there is any harm in holding on to the Santa myth,” says Jennifer L. Hartstein, Psy,D., a New York-based child, adolescent, and family psychologist. “Young children very often live in a magical, fantasy world. Santa is part of that. The idea of Santa, and the tooth fairy, the Elf on the Shelf…any of these things are part of the innocence and wonder of childhood.”

In fact, research continues to point to the fact that children benefit from pretend play, make-believe, and exercising their imaginations. It helps cognitive development and can increase creativity.

“A child’s innocence and exploration and wonder at the world is a great thing, and we want to encourage exploration of fantasy and imagination in our children,” says Hartstein. “Although there is fear in parents about what will happen when they find out the truth, especially for the good things, I think the enjoyment of fantasy is wonderful for them.”

And what about that disappointment? Can it be so strong in the end that it negates all the happiness and joy ⏤ not to mention Barbie Dolls and bicycles ⏤ Santa brought into their lives? The researchers in the Lancet Psychiatry article argue so, but Hartstein disagrees. Learning to deal with the sadness that comes from unfulfilled expectations is a natural part of life. It’s a healthy emotion, and you can’t hide from it.

“I don’t believe disappointment is ever really problematic,” Hartstein says. “We work really hard to bubble wrap children to protect them from disappointment. It’s a part of life and something that they do need to learn about.”

That’s not to say there aren’t potential psychological pitfalls that could arise from pinky swearing to your kids that Santa is totally real. They’re just not big enough to cause concern. These are the worries:

1. You Are Lying

Okay, you are still lying to your children — despite teaching them that lying is wrong and actively discouraging them to do so. “This could create some minor trust issues for children with authority figures,” says Hartstein. “And it can teach young children that lying is acceptable.”

There is evidence to suggest this is true. An MIT study from 2014 found that when adults omitted the truth to a group of 6- and 7-year-olds, the kids were less likely to trust them ⏤ and more suspicious of what they said ⏤ moving forward.

In general, parents usually lie to kids for one of two reasons: “To get their children to do something or to make/keep them happy,” says Hartstein. “Even a lie of omission can avoid causing a meltdown or sadness. In a situation like dealing with Santa, the lie can do both things (get the children to be good and keep them happy).” But the ends don’t always justify the means ⏤ lying for a good reason is still lying.

2. You’re Using Fear To Motivate

Scaring your kid into thinking that Santa won’t show up if they’re naughty is a terrible way to motivate a child’s behavior. It’s always better to lead by example rather than threaten or punish.

“I think there is more negativity in the Elf on the Shelf than Santa, but using either to motivate good behavior isn’t great,” says Hartstein. “Fear is a motivator for people, but it doesn’t actually teach anyone what to do. It just teaches what not to do. Therefore, it becomes a punishment of sorts.” She adds, “Punishment doesn’t teach any new behavior either. I think it’s better to encourage good behaviors, lead by example, teach what you want and let Santa be the reinforcer rather than the punisher.”

So go nuts celebrating that jolly old man and his cookie-thieving ways. Just don’t hang him around your kid’s neck in an attempt to blackmail them into behaving.

The ultimate irony here is that by perpetuating the Santa myth, in the end it’s actually the parents who often suffer more emotional damage than the kids. A lot of kids find out from friends at school that Santa is a lie and or simply become skeptical on their own. And when they learn the truth, they take it in stride.

“Most children, around 7 or 8, begin to realize that Santa isn’t real, and they generally handle the news just fine and move on,” Hartstein says. “It’s the parents who tend to have a harder time with it.”

She adds, “The disappointment is often related to the fact that the innocence of young childhood is gone, the wonderment is gone, and that their child is growing up. All of those things elicit a lot of emotions for parents.”

It’s important, per Hartstein, for parents to really think about who the Santa myth is for: them or their children? A lot of times, kids are ready for that big no-Santa reveal, but parents keep things going more for themselves than the child.

For parents who may find themselves holding on too tight, she offers a word of advice: “Take a step back and check in with yourself. If it’s about you, allow yourself to be sad that your child is growing up, and then try to move forward. The next stages of life are just as fun.”

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