Warning: Don't let your kids read this post!
Can you keep a secret? Here's one I'm going to share with you: I never believed in Santa Claus.
Before you find the right emoji to express your horror and pity, I should explain that I spent the first five years of my life in Taiwan. At the time, during the '80s, Christmas wasn't the hugely popular or commercial holiday that it has become today. (I recently went back to Taiwan and Christmas decorations were everywhere.) Even though my family owned a small plastic tree, we never decorated it, and my parents never taught me to believe in the magic (and myth) of jolly Old Saint Nick.
When I moved to the U.S., I learned more about the red-suited man who delivered gifts via a flying reindeer sleigh. But even though I was still young enough to believe in Santa, I never thought he was real or that he existed. I never wrote letters addressed to the North Pole, I never left cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve, and I never sat in Santa's lap telling him what was on my wish list.
All this might sound like one big #parentingfail, but I'm glad my parents never told me about Santa. Instead, I was left to discover and believe what I wanted. But I was curious: How important is it to believe in Santa Claus? To help me answer this question (and other questions I had), I reached out to Dr. Heather Wittenberg, a child psychologist/development expert and mom of four, and Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and mom of two. Here's what they both said.
Should parents tell kids about Santa?
Dr. Heather: Santa is more of a family and cultural issue. So if Santa is an important part of the family's rituals and traditions and stories, then it is valuable for the child to embrace that story and enjoy it for all it's worth. But to the extent that the family is 'meh' about Santa, that's fine, too. No big loss.
How should parents approach talking about Santa?
Dr. Berger: If parents want to encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus, or other culturally-sanctioned magic ideas, they can present the idea with enthusiasm and fun. The parents' attitude can convey that these imaginary figures are not quite the same as the guy with the blue truck living across the street, that there is a special humor and excitement about an imaginary figure that is different from ordinary reality.
Should parents feel guilty about "lying" to their kids?
Dr. Heather: It's not really a "lie" to young children who aren't able (yet) to comprehend the difference between "reality" and "fantasy." So for them, Santa is just another fun story (that the child sort of believes, like monsters and other make believe things).
Dr. Berger: Santa is no different from many other parts of life which look different from a child's perspective. Joining the magic of one's particular culture is a part of childhood. Because all small children think magically, no parent can (or should) aim to get rid of childlike magic all at once -- or pretend that a 4-year-old can be a miniature scientist. All children believe in magic because they think magically.
What should parents say when kids start to ask questions?
Dr. Heather: As kids get to the age (around first grade) where they begin to distinguish between truth and fantasy, it's okay to let the child guide the "belief in Santa" process. So if the child is suspicious and demands to know if Santa is really "real," it's not damaging to say "Now that you're a bigger kid, you can see that some stories are just stories we tell because they are fun and we love them. But you're right, Santa is just a story, and we love to have fun with the story every year. It's still OK to make believe and enjoy it. (And please keep the secret from your friends or younger siblings who still want to believe.)"
Is it bad for children to stop believing in Santa?
Dr. Berger: Part of the slow gradual development of adult thinking is becoming more aware of reality. As children mature, they gradually give up the excitement and magic of the imaginary figure, like their favorite teddy bear; it just slowly loses importance. Instead, they transfer their sense of fun and excitement and magic to other things. However, plenty of magic remains in their heart.
Should parents worry if a child is too old to believe in Santa?
Dr. Heather: For "big kids" who still cling to the belief that Santa is real, that's okay, too. As long as the child understands truth vs. fiction when it really matters in life, hanging onto Santa won't hurt a bit.
So for me, I didn't need to believe in Santa Claus to believe in the magic of Christmas. Because Christmas already is magical. And as a kid, I was spellbound by sparking lights, big red bows, pine-y garlands, colorful ornaments, and the warm golden glow that permeated every window and street corner. Everything about Christmas -- candy canes, gingerbread houses, sugar plum fairies, velveteen stockings -- was still magical or wonderful or memorable for me. I also spent many a Christmas at church, watching the reenactment of the birth of baby Jesus, experiencing another aspect of the magic of Christmas -- one full of star-filled skies, singing angels, and the miracle of birth.
The commercial and the religious mingled, and I eventually grew to believe Christmas's most basic message: to retain a sense of wide-eyed wonder and understand that magical moments are possible -- even ones with or without Santa Claus.
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Image: Santa Claus via Shutterstock