Is Santa Real? How to Talk to Your Kids About Santa Claus

At some point, most children question whether or not Santa is real. We spoke with psychologists to learn how parents should handle these inquiries.

If you have children—and celebrate Christmas—Santa Claus is probably a big deal in your house. The jolly red man is the unofficial mascot of the season. He is also something of a holiday tradition, one that many families opt to honor. But no matter how magical Santa is, inevitably the day comes when most children ask “Is Santa real?” (I remember, clearly and vividly, how 5-year-old me learned “the truth,” and it was traumatic. There were screams and shrieks and tears.) But the conversation doesn’t have to go awry if you approach it in a thoughtful way.

Santa carrying bag full of toys

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Here’s how to have the "Santa talk” with your kids, including when it should occur and what you should say. 

When Do Children Stop Believing In Santa Claus?

While children learn the truth about Santa Claus at different ages, most kids stop believing around the age of 8, according to a 2018 study conducted by The University Of Exeter in the United Kingdom. It usually doesn’t happen overnight, however. Instead, it’s a gradual shift that's preempted by questions and subtle hints.

Children stop believing in Santa for numerous reasons. Many learn the truth at school, from classmates and peers. Some catch their parents in the act. According to The University Of Exeter study, many children witnessed their parents placing presents under the tree or (worse) eating food meant for Santa and his reindeer. Others simply outgrow the myth. 

How to Start a Conversation About Santa Claus

Many parents want to know when to have conversations about Santa with their children. After all, you don't want to broach the topic prematurely and lose their Christmas magic. You also don't want to withhold information if they're seeking the truth. It's really up to your discretion.

“It’s typical for most children to start questioning if Santa is real between the ages of 7 and 10,” says Ray W. Christner, Psy.D., NCSP, psychologist. “For some parents and families, they make the choice to tell children as soon as they start questioning in any manner.  For others, they will keep the belief alive in the early stages of this questioning. There is no wrong answer. However, when they start suspecting, you should start to develop a plan for how you want to respond.”

If you decide to broach the subject, start by asking kids open-ended questions, such as “What do you think about Santa?” “This will allow them to explain their thinking about Santa without judgment or a strong emotional response,” says Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and mother of three. Their answer will also give you information you need to formulate your answer. 

What To Say If Your Child Asks “Is Santa Real?”

While some children will skirt the issue—dropping subtle questions and hints—others may ask, point blank, “Is Santa real?” And while the question may catch you off guard, how you respond is important—whether you opt to tell them the truth or not.

If your child asks “Is Santa real” turn the question around. Ask them what they think. Listen to their response, thoroughly and completely. Consider their age. And then make a decision on how you want to proceed.

“There is no right or wrong answer,” says Arianna Boddy, Psy.D, a child clinical psychologist and the co-founder of FemFwd. “You have to evaluate what works best for you and your family… while considering your child’s maturity level and developmental age.” 

Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Santa Claus 

Once you’ve decided to talk to your children about Santa Claus, you may wonder how to broach the topic. Your kid's faltering belief comes as a shock for many, after all, and no parent wants to hurt their kid. But all of the experts we spoke with agree: Creating and sticking to a plan is key.

Be open.

When you are ready to have the “Santa talk” with your kids, it’s important to be as open as possible. “Create a safe space for your child to come to you with their questions and inquiries,” says Dr. Boddy—one which is nurturing and loving and invites conversation. 

Follow their lead.

Once you’ve got your kid talking about Santa, they will (more likely than not) keep talking. Children are inquisitive by nature, and this conversation will spurn many questions. Do your best to listen to them. Follow their inquiries with open-ended questions, and be patient. Learning the truth can be overwhelming, and some kids are not quite ready to rip the bandage off. Follow their lead at all times when deciding what to tell them.

Explain the magic of Christmas.

You’ve sat your child down. You’ve fielded their questions, and now it’s time to answer them. And while you could say, point blank, that Santa isn’t real, most of the experts we spoke with believe there is a more tactful way to approach the subject.

“Parents could explain Santa really represents the ‘spirit of Christmas’—that the ‘spirit of Christmas’ lives on in anyone who practices kindness and generosity during the season,” says Dr. Goodwin. “Parents can also discuss how their child can embody the ‘Christmas spirit’ in their own lives, by helping and giving to others—particularly those who are in need."

You can also encourage your children to get involved, says Anjali Ferguson, PhD., an early children's mental health expert and psychologist. "The magic of Christmas comes from the thoughtfulness, kindness, and expressions of gratitude," she adds. "Teach children these themes explicitly and help them identify ways they can 'play Santa; to express kindness and gratitude towards loved ones in their life. Building these moments collectively and giving children the control in these gift-giving moments can maintain the magical experiences throughout."

Encourage kids to become a Santa.

Once your child understands the spirit of the season—and the magic of Christmas—some parents opt to enlist their help. But how? Well, according to a viral 2016 Facebook post written by Leslie Rush and shared by Charity Hutchinson, one way is making your child a Santa. 

Take your child out on a date, something intimate and one-on-one. Talk to them (again) about the meaning of the season, and encourage them to help by becoming Santa. "You probably have noticed that most of the Santas you see are people dressed up like him,” Rush writes. “Some of your friends might have even told you that there is no Santa. A lot of children think that because they aren't ready to BE a Santa yet, but YOU ARE.” Why? Because your child understands Santa is a concept, not a person, thanks to you. During this conversation, you should let them know the value of giving back, too.

Be prepared for big emotions.

No matter what you say—or how you say it—it’s important to remember that big emotions may ensue. Some children are disappointed when learning the truth about Santa. Some are angry, and others are heartbroken to learn the big red man is a big white lie. Give your child space. Take their lead, and give them time to feel and heal.

"If you decide to tell your child, be prepared for how your child may react," says Dr. Boddy. "They may be indifferent or relieved. They may be very distraught and upset. Be open to whatever they are feeling and available to process their feelings with them."

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