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How Far Do I Push This Santa Thing With My Kids?

Advice from a psychologist, a children’s book author, a mall Santa and others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

I’m not ashamed to say that I love Christmas. Every year I deck out my whole house in increasingly gaudy Christmas decorations and listen to Christmas songs all but continuously in the car. Starting on the day after Thanksgiving (and no earlier), it’s all Christmas, all the time, with an endless parade of Christmas movies and other traditions. I’ve even been reading my three-year-old daughter How the Grinch Stole Christmas just about every night.

So as a cookie-baking, eggnog-drinking fanatic for the season, and as the father of an only child, I guess you could say I have a lot invested in keeping this whole thing going for as long as I can. Because of that, I got a little worried the other night when we went to the mall and ran into Santa. Being ahead of the game, we’d already seen another Santa at a grocery store last week, and that guy looked a lot different than this Santa. When I entered the mall and my daughter darted over to him in excitement, I froze a little, worried that my little girl might notice that this guy looks so much different to the Santa we just saw a few days prior.

Fortunately, my daughter didn’t hesitate to believe that not only is this the same dude, but that he is the one-and-only Kris Kringle himself. She picked up right where she left off with Santa the other day. This guy didn’t miss a beat either: He talked to my daughter about Christmas and gave her stickers and then we were on our way — for the rest of the night, it’s all she could talk about.

The whole episode got me thinking: What do I do when she does notice that this Santa isn’t quite the same as that Santa, or when she wonders how those reindeer can fly, or how he can get to all those houses in one night? How do I answer those questions? Should I keep, basically, lying, or just come out with the truth?

Basically: How far should I push this Santa thing?

The Expert Advice

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: When a child questions you about Santa Claus, I’d recommend that you give them as much information as they’re asking for, but not more. Kids start to reason around age seven — this is when they start to question why there are different Santas at all of these stores or how he goes to all of these houses in one night. This is part of them just normally questioning things in line with their cognitive development.

For a kid who asks about one of these more fantastic elements of Santa, you might say, “That’s some of the magic of Santa, and we don’t really know how all that works.” For some kids, that may be enough because they still want to believe.

Other kids, however, may be done, and they may be questioning things because they heard something at school. So if they ask additional questions, you might respond by saying, “Why are you asking?” or “What do you think?” or “Do you believe that?” From these questions, let them lead the way and you’ll begin to get an idea where they’re at with it. Just try to be sure that you’re not going to prolong the fantasy just because it’s fun for you. After enough questions, if you continue to be die-hard about continuing on, you kind of are betraying their trust, because they’re asking you to be honest at this point.

Stella, mother of three: To keep Santa going for my boys, there is a lot that we do: We do Elf on the Shelf, and we leave cookies and milk for Santa, as well as a carrot for the reindeer. I also go to some greater lengths. For example, for all of the presents that we mark “from Santa,” I use special wrapping paper and I change my handwriting so they won’t recognize that it’s me. I even make sure that I vacuum the floor before I start wrapping so that all of my hair is up off the floor, otherwise my hair will end up stuck to the tape. I hide the presents in the attic and in the basement, but on Christmas Eve during the day, I lock them all in a room downstairs so that I don’t risk waking them up while getting that stuff.

For the first year in our new house, I wanted to do something really special. My kids were worried because the new house didn’t have a fireplace and they didn’t know how Santa was going to get in, so I told them he’d enter through the back deck. Then, the next morning they found a ripped piece of red velvet stuck in the door, like Santa had got his coat stuck. I also left a jingle bell along with a note from Santa that said he left the bell so that they’d always remember their first Christmas in the new house, and every year since they always talk about that.

My two youngest definitely still believe in Santa, but I’m not sure about my 11-year-old. When each boy reached the age where they began to ask questions about the Santa in the mall, I would tell them that, that was Santa’s helper, and that the real Santa is at the North Pole. They all could handle that, but my oldest is now at that age where I think he’s questioning things overall. Given his age, part of me figures he probably doesn’t believe anymore, but occasionally he’ll say something that makes me think he still does. Honestly, I don’t know where he’s at with it, but I think that part of him still thinks Santa is real, and he doesn’t want to admit that there’s no such thing.

David Kyle Johnson, professor of philosophy and the author of The Myths that Stole Christmas: I personally don’t believe parents should tell their children about Santa Claus in the first place, but one of the middle ground solutions that I give to parents is to let their children believe in Santa — however, as soon as they start to ask for the truth, you give it to them. If a child comes to you with doubts and you perpetuate the lie, one of my concerns is that there is a danger in promoting credulousness in them, or a lack of critical thinking. You risk making them gullible and you’re promoting the idea that you can believe in things because they’re fun and it gets you presents, instead of believing in things because of evidence and reason.

Some people believe that children are too young to be taught this kind of critical thinking, but I like to equate it to using proper grammar in front of your children: You speak properly in front of children before they have the ability to do it themselves, that way you encourage good grammar. In that same respect, you want to promote critical thinking in a child.

Adam Wallace, author of How to Catch an Elf and The Holiday Heroes Save Christmas: I’ve written four books for children about Christmas, and I think it’s important for kids to have fun and to have an escape. I also like to get children excited about reading: There’s a certain kind of magic when an author writes a story, then a child reads that story. Christmas and Santa are great to tell stories about because they also have that element of magic to them. It’s about joy, giving and niceness and those are just wonderful things to write about — I believe that, whether or not a kid does or doesn’t believe in Santa, they still want to believe in that magic a bit.

Deanna Golden, a mall Mrs. Claus in Arizona: We love to keep the belief in Santa going, and a lot of that comes with the interactions with the child. So we can talk about presents from the previous Christmas, and we talk about their Christmas tree and what their favorite ornament is. Santa and I also do family parties, where we get the names of the children beforehand as well as their recent accomplishments, so when they sit on Santa’s lap, we can talk about that, and that can help keep the magic going. The best way to keep things alive is to find more ways for things to be magical. Just asking a kid what they want from Santa doesn’t keep the belief going.

When children start to question Santa, some parents tell their children that Santa is real but that he has a lot of helpers — some even say that mommies and daddies help Santa, but when a child knows already, you have to be honest with them. I recommend that when they finally do find out, you also explain to them the history of St. Nicholas and where the legend came from. From there, perhaps they can be a part of the club that helps bring the Santa story to younger siblings and cousins. What’s important is that they believe in the spirit of what Santa represents: That’s what they need to keep believing, even as an adult. After all, in this world, don’t we need a little more Santa Claus?

Santa Russ, a Mall Santa from Arizona: I hate to hear when a kid is getting bullied at school for believing in Santa, so when a kid comes up to me and tells me there is no Santa because their friend told them so, I always say, “Well, if they don’t believe in me, that’s fine, but as long as you believe in me, I’m here. You can see me, you can talk to me, you can hug me. It’s what you feel in your heart that matters.”

But if they don’t believe anymore, that’s okay too. Santa doesn’t necessarily mean a fat guy in a bright red suit — it’s more about the love, the sharing, the caring and getting together with loved ones. Santa’s in your heart, not at the mall.