December 24, 2012

The Santa Dialogues

Concerned about telling your children about Santa? A psychologist says, back off.

Parents worried that their child is getting too old for Santa Claus should stop worrying and just follow their child's lead. It will make the holiday season much happier for both kids and parents.

Psychologist Jared Durtschi, a specialist on parent-child interactions at Kansas State University, explains that there is no set age when a child will or should stop believing in Santa Claus. It varies from child to child. And there's certainly no need for parents to decide on a time to tell their children that Santa Claus doesn't exist. Children will figure it out on their own, sooner or later. But tell them too early and you'll be throwing cold water on their Christmas cheer.

Parents who feel the need to broach the topic would be better off asking neutral questions such as, ‘What do you think about Santa Claus?’ rather than, ‘Do you still believe in Santa Claus? ’

Christmas is usually a lot more fun for the children who do believe in Santa Claus. Why spoil their fun needlessly?

Most difficult for parents can be the transition period when children still want to believe in Santa Claus but are beginning to realize the logical impossibilities in Santa's feats, such as visiting every single house in the world in a single evening. A child may decide they believe in Santa one day, don't believe the next day and then change their mind again next week. This can go on for years. Parents often mistake this behavior for an uncompromising disbelief in Santa. They shouldn't. Their children's beliefs are a great deal more flexible than that. Parents could consider the way they may continue to buy lottery tickets, even after years of throwing away good money after bad on them, as an example of something similar.

During this transition period, parents may want to know their children's thoughts but are afraid that raising the topic will drive them away from the magic of Santa Claus. Parents who do feel the need to broach the topic would be better off asking neutral questions such as “What do you think about Santa Claus?” rather than leading ones like “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

Parents who don't want their children to believe in Santa at all may be in for some tough sledding. Spending time with like-minded families during the holiday season may help. But even if they never mention Santa to their children, society will. Santa is a cultural icon of benevolence and kindness of such stature that he's very hard for children (or even grownups) to resist.

Durtschi also emphasizes the importance of teaching children that others may not share their holiday beliefs and that children need to respect other people's different holiday beliefs and customs.

Jared Durtschi, PhD, is an assistant professor of marriage and family therapy at Kansas State University.

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