Should I Tell My Kid that Santa Isn't Real?
Content Written/Updated on May 16, 2007
Lately my daughter has been questioning the existence of the tooth fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc. Since she is only 8, I really would like her to keep believing for a little while longer. She said that other kids have told her that it is really your parents. I asked her what she believes and with tears in her eyes she says she doesn't know. What suggestions do you have for answers to her questions "Is he real?"
First a psychological explanation:
An eight-year-old is in the concrete operational stage of cognitive development (ages 7 - 11). In this stage, children start to grow into scientists, questioning ideas they once thought were true, looking for clues to support their ideas, and trying to make logical connections to hold everything together. Sometimes, as old beliefs unravel, a child will completely abandon old ideas, like Santa and the Tooth Fairy. If a child is particularly attached to a certain belief, or if his/her community reinforces that belief, the belief will remain, even if it isn't true, but the child will have to create new rules to make that belief fit in with the rest of the facts in a logical way.
Now, let's skip to the layman's explanation:
For simplicity, I'm going to talk about Santa Claus, but this can apply to the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, etc.
It's also important to note that that some kids will let go of different beliefs at different times, so it is quite possible that your child will say, "I don't believe in Santa, but the Easter Bunny is real." Don't assume that just because your child has figured out the truth about one character that he/she has figured out all of them.
If she (or any other person) asks you "Is Santa real?" I would just say, "Yes, I believe he is." After all, St. Nicolas really does exist; he's just not alive anymore. The Tooth Fairy really does exist, but she doesn't have wings and she also goes by the name Mom. The Easter Bunny exists, but in most cases he's a real rabbit who hops around and eats veggies and doesn't deliver eggs or baskets filled with candy.
Most children in this stage still want to believe that there is a magical, jolly, sweet man who lives at the North Pole, rides a sled pulled by flying reindeer, and brings gifts once per year. (Even as an adult I think it would be nice if Santa Claus brought me presents every year.) Some kids who are particularly attached to the idea of Santa will try to find ways to prolong their beliefs in him by making new rules to explain logical gaps in the facts, like explaining how Santa is able to do all his deliveries in one night because he doesn't go to every house or has helpers who do the deliveries for him. Kids who are less attached to the idea are more likely to just let go of it without much of a fuss. Some children may even feel great pride in their ability to figure out who actually leaves the presents under their tree, and they'll happily tell all of their peers about their revolutionary discovery.
If your child is having a difficult time letting go her belief in Santa, and her peers are eagerly sharing their newfound truth with her, she will surely begin to experience stress from her internal conflict. Simply telling her that Santa doesn't exist will probably produce more stress by creating feelings of grief about the loss of her beloved Santa and resentment toward everyone else for lying to her. A less stressful way to help her transition is to help her figure out the answers for herself.
Instead of just asking her if she believes in Santa or not, I would ask her what specifically about Santa doesn't make sense to her. She will probably list off several things as well as her theories about those items. Don't tell her if she's right or wrong (no matter how much you wish her belief in Santa would go on forever). Just let her come up with her own conclusions. "Maybe" is a handy response to questions like, "Do you think that could happen?" Eventually, she will be the one to tell you that Santa does or doesn't exist.
Of course, the next question she'll probably have is, "Why did you tell me that those stories about Santa if they weren't true?" The honest answer is "Because it's fun to play make-believe. Stories about Santa make little kids happy, and you were a little kid, and I like to see you happy. Even though you're not a little kid anymore, it's still fun to pretend Santa is real. Even grown-ups like to pretend Santa is real."
You can still practice those Santa-related tradition. You can still write letters to Santa. You can still leave out milk and cookies. You can still get your photo taken with Santa at the mall. Such pretending (even for adults) is part of the fun.
You can even start new traditions to celebrate her transition to this new state of truth-knowing, such as wrapping the from Santa gifts for younger kids, eating the milk and cookies left out for Santa, or volunteering as an elf at Meet Santa events. It's probably also wise to tell her that she has a new job as a big kid who knows that truth, and that job is to not spoil the fun for other kids who don't know the truth yet.