Let's face it: the holidays are a frantic time. There are presents to find, get-togethers to plan, holiday parties, plays and special events at school. In the middle of all of this chaos, your 4-year-old walks up to you, and with a thoughtful look on his face, asks the question you've been dreading: "Is Santa Claus really real?"
The first piece of advice from the experts is to exhale and count to ten. There's no need to panic. But it might be helpful if you've decided in advance how you want to handle the Santa Claus Question.
"People make themselves crazy over Christmas," said Mary Fristad, professor of psychiatry and psychology at The Ohio State University, and a clinical child psychologist.
"Go back to the basics," she urged. "This is about whatever your religious beliefs are and it's supposed to be a sharing, loving and warm and caring time with the people who mean the most to you. (Santa Claus) is just a happy story that kind of floats on top of all of this."
Many parents are adamant about never lying to their children, and that makes the Santa Claus story a more difficult one to embrace. But it really shouldn't be, said Terry Molony, a licensed clinical social worker and school psychologist in Gloucester Township, N.J.
"I don't conceptualize it as lying," Molony said. "I think of it as make-believe. Like when kids see Big Bird on TV. You don't run and point out that it's really a person in a bird costume, do you?"
Fristad and Molony offered some tips for parents to consider when deciding how they want to handle the Santa Claus story in their family.
- Decide as a family. Whether this involves the husband and wife or perhaps older children, let everyone have a say. After all, Molony said, whatever you decide is likely to not only be the tradition for your family, but your young children will probably embrace the same tradition when they become parents.
- The Santa legend is harmless. "This whole story is based on St. Nicholas of the 4th Century, who is reputed to have given his money away anonymously to the poor. The storyline here is very positive," Fristad said. Parents who focus on whether they are lying to their kids are missing the point. Besides, it's possible to answer your kids' questions for a time without bending the truth. Answers like "Santa is a warm, loving feeling deep inside and I believe in that" can be effective. Or turn the question around: "What do you think about Santa?"
- Remember that creativity and imagination are important. "I really do think (the Santa Claus story) can engage the imagination and engender a sense of wonder and spread the message of generosity," Molony said. There's extensive research that shows that imagination and creativity help children develop superior problem-solving skills, she said.
- Don't worry if your child starts to have doubts. Fristad said most kids will figure out the truth by the time they are 7, although that is sometimes earlier if siblings are involved. Molony said she would advise parents not to try to talk young children into believing the Santa Claus legend. "I would remain neutral and ask them what they think," she said. That approach allows your child to learn how to work out an issue on their own.
Some parents worry that learning the news about Santa Claus could cause significant emotional damage. Not so, said Molony and Fristad, at least not that anyone has proven. "I am not aware of any studies that suggest that," Molony said. "I'm not saying none exist, but I'm not aware of any."
So what is the best way to break the news about Santa Claus? Don't worry about it. Your kids will figure that one out on their own. "Let's be realistic," said Fristad. "Have you ever you ever run into a 45-year-old who didn't know about Santa?"