Children have believed in Santa for hundreds of years and parents have passed on their Christmas traditions for as long as they can in the hope to keep the magic alive.
However more and more families are now questioning the ethics and morals behind essentially lying to their children, and what this might mean in terms of whether their child trusts them, how they respond to the news he doesn’t exist and at what point parents should be sharing this knowledge and potentially ruining the magic of Christmas.
Something that used to be light-hearted and fun suddenly seems very serious and our underlying need as parents to shelter our children from sadness means we are now over analysing what we say, our own beliefs and worrying about what other children and adults might let slip.
Christmas should be a time for family, joy and giving so let’s take a step back and look at what the research actually tells us and what options we might have in terms of speaking to our children about Santa.
Consider What Works For You and Your Family
Firstly, there really is no right or wrong response.
It’s about considering different options and thinking about what might work better for you and your family rather than feeling that you have to go down a certain route.
You might have already told your children that Santa is real and started your own traditions but perhaps they are asking questions about how Santa fits all the presents in his sleigh, or how he gets into houses without a chimney, so you feel a bit trapped and unsure of how to respond.
This is very different to a family who might only just be thinking about how to make Christmas magical for their 1 year old and agreeing on where they are going to leave the presents.
For this reason I would try not to get bogged down in details, even knowing what to call the big man can be confusing (is it Santa? Father Christmas or Saint Nic?), and focus more on the bigger picture of what you want Christmas to be about.
Do not use Father Christmas to Punish Bad Behaviour
Secondly, whilst I would encourage every family to do what’s right for them, I would avoid putting conditions on the receiving of gifts.
For example removing the concept of a naughty and nice list. It can be all too tempting to fall into the trap of calling Santa to tell him that your child isn’t listening, or threatening your child with no presents because Santa and his Elves have seen them misbehaving.
The problem with this is that you are using the concept of Santa to coerce your child into desirable behaviours.
Whilst this seems like a great idea, if we unpick what’s going on, your child is only choosing to modify their behaviour because you’ve offered an external reward.
This might work in the short term but it doesn’t tap into their motivation and it can actually result in more negative behaviours in the long run.
Research has shown that when we motivate children using external rewards, rather than their internal motivation, we have to keep upping the reward value in order to maintain the same results.
At some point your child will feel the reward isn’t good enough and fall back into the same patterns. Your child might even override their internal desire to do something in search of a reward, and when that external reward isn’t offered their initial satisfaction seems no longer important.
Consider HOW they Find Out the Truth About Father Christmas
Finally if your child believes that Santa is a real person, and then realises that he isn’t they may feel you have lied to them and this can create a general feeling of distrust. Research has shown that children who are lied to, even white lies, are more likely to lie themselves. This isn’t necessarily an argument to tell your child the truth from the start, but I would encourage you to consider how they find out the truth and to deliver this message to them in a way that accounts for their feelings and offers validation should they feel sad, angry or disappointed in any way.
With all of that in mind I have listed some strategies to consider when talking to your child about Santa:
Emphasise the Joy in Giving
Emphasise the joy in giving, particularly the act of giving anonymously or without any expectation that you will receive anything back.
If you can help your child to see that ‘Santa’ isn’t just one man, but instead more about the spirit of Christmas this takes the pressure off you trying to explain the logistics of how someone can deliver all the presents in one night, and removes the element of forcing your child to be ok with a complete stranger entering their room whilst they sleep.
Offer Curiosity and Interest in Your Child’s Thoughts
Offer curiosity and interest in your child’s thoughts when they ask you questions.
For example if they ask ‘Is that man dressed as Santa the real Santa?’ You can respond with ‘What do you think?’.
If they start to question aspects of the story they have been told listen calmly to them and respond with intrigue. Your child might come to their own conclusion or you could develop new ideas together. The important thing is that they feel their voice is being heard and they aren’t being left with a feeling of confusion or being lied to.
Treat Their Belief in Santa Like Any Other Personal Belief
Treat the belief in Santa like you would any other personal belief; share ideas, talk about ‘some people believe this…’ role model respecting those beliefs and emphasise that your child is free to believe whatever they wish to.
Remember that Children Find Joy in Their Imaginations
Remember that children find joy in their imaginations.
Just because they know something is fictional doesn’t mean it becomes less exciting. Just think about how they respond to dragons, monsters, unicorns, mermaids and fairies and how you react to their thoughts around that too.
Are they real? Who knows- do children need hard evidence either way or will they figure it out by themselves and make up their own minds?
If you can try to relax, take the pressure off Christmas and join your child in their imaginative play and ideas you will have much more fun and that will be the magic of Christmas that they remember.
Join My Workshop
If you are worried about what you’ve already told your child, or that they might spoil Christmas for other children or react badly to hearing the truth then tune into my workshop to find out more on what the research tells us, positive and practical strategies you can use and exactly what you can say and do to support your family.
You can access the workshop by joining my Membership which gives you full access to all workshops, masterclasses and supportive resources for as long as you want it. Simply click this link and create your own account. You can enter code HALF11 at the check out for your first month half price!
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Pretty GH, Seligman C. Affect and the overjustification effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1984:1241-1253. doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2061
Lepper MR, Greene D, Nisbett RE. Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1973:129-137. doi:10.1037/h0035519
Santos RM, Zanette S, Kwok SM, Heyman GD, and Lee K. 2017. Exposure to Parenting by Lying in Childhood: Associations with Negative Outcomes in Adulthood. Front Psychol. 2017 8:1240.
Setoh P, Zhao S, Santos R, Heyman GD, Lee K. 2020. Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood. J Exp Child Psychol. 189:104680.
The Positive Parent Coach®️. Olivia helps Parents stay calm, develop their confidence and stay connected to their children when experiencing a range of challengesOlivia has over 15 years experience in Psychology, Education and Child Development. She has published 2 scientific papers, trained as a specialist in The Early Years and completed training in Theraplay. She has also continued to develop herknowledge and training around Positive Psychology and Positive Parenting, as well as Internal Family Systems therapy. She has a 5 year old, a 3 year old and a 2 year old, so you can trust that she really does understand the challenges and demands of motherhood, and how to juggle responsibilities.