Around this time of year the question that often comes up is: Should we tell our kids the truth about Santa Clause?
Being Jewish, I’ve never celebrated Christmas and Santa Clause was never a “thing” in my life. But similar themes are present in almost all religions and cultures: The Tooth Fairy (who exchanges fallen milk teeth for shiny coins, when these are left under a child’s pillow), Krampus (the clawed, hairy beast who punishes Austrian children by stealing their toys), Elijah the prophet (who visits on Passover and mysteriously drinks from a cup of wine), or The Loch Ness Monster (an aquatic being which reputedly lives in Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands), Bigfoot, Yeti’s and more.
Many of these are people or creatures that adults generally know not to exist, but are typically presented to children as realities anyway. Many of them are presented to children as truths, through stories. For some (such as Santa Clause and Elijah the Prophet) adults will even gone so far as to elaborately create scenes (or dress up as these characters) to “prove” to children that they are real. Adults join each other in a game of hushed voices and sneaky staging – all from the wonderfully good intentioned motivation of preserving the magic of the childhood story.
I realize that my own approach to these ideas may not be popular, and I know it’s a topic many people have strong feelings about – so, as with all my content – please only take what resonates for you. I’ll share my on approach and thoughts here:
Whilst I think story and imaginary play are wonderful, I don’t believe children benefit from these being presented as truths. Here’s why:
- I want my children to know, without a hint of doubt, that what I tell them is always the rock solid truth (to the best of my knowledge). I want them to know that if we’re playing imaginary games we are all “in on it”. I have often felt the burn of being the “ brunt” of a joke that everyone was in on, except me. Have you ever been in a situation where everyone knew it was a joke, except you? Even if it’s well intentioned, or for your own “good”, I’m not sure it feels great, at least it didn’t for me. Many of us have become disillusioned by an adult who withheld important information, or didn’t give us a straight answer when we needed one. And when we were awakened to that fact, we felt the sting as our trust in those adults was slightly eroded as a result. As someone who values honesty, authenticity and truth, I want my children to know I value it and to have every reason to trust in me that I give them the best, most reliable information I have access to.
- It is my belief that magic, ritual, story and imagination are not depleted at all by knowing that it’s play. Kids are geniuses at suspending their disbelief. The idea that we have to pretend something is real, and shield children from the truth, that it is in fact play, is an adultism. It’s our own limitation of mind that leads us to think the magic would be somehow diminished if we claimed to the idea that it’s “real”. I think children absolutely feel that just because something scientifically doesn’t exist in the actual factual world, doesn’t diminish from the game. Just watch any situation of children playing “house” and you’ll see they don’t need things to be real, for them to be meaningful and fun.
- I think children deserve our credit as complex, deep thinkers. The idea that presenting something as an idea, or a belief, or a ‘gray area’ would somehow confuse them, paints children as incompetent, simplistic thinkers. I think they are able to differentiate between science, reality, fantasy, belief, story, imagination, play – and still interweave these seamlessly in a way that is enviable to us adults. But I also think that when someone is asking for the truth, they deserve it. I’ve said this about the truth about sex, death and – here’s a really easy one – Santa Claus. In all of these instances, if you’re not inclined to volunteer the information that this isn’t real, at least consider relinquishing it if asked.
If you’re worried this means you can’t enjoy religious ceremonies or rituals without being truthful – au contraire! Enjoy the family ritual! Enjoy the game of it! Indulge in the story, the fun, the imagination and the ceremony Just as you would enjoy a great movie, a play, a game of chess or playing “lions” or a game of tag. You – and your children – might even enjoy it even more if they’re not anxious about how things work. Often children get caught up in the anxiety of not knowing if something is real or not. They curious little scientists who are out for good quality information How does Santa fit everyone in? How does he fly through the air? When they can’t get their answers on how this thing actually “works” they may feel nervous or confused. However, when they know it’s a game, it liberates them to enjoy the magic of the story without worrying about the details.
If you’d like to adopt this approach, but aren’t sure how, here are some things you might say:
“Santa isn’t real in the real world, but he can be real in our imaginations”
“A lot of people like to pretend Santa is real, do you?”
“Santa is a story we can believe in and act out on Christmas! Would you like to?”
You might share the history of Santa, the various Santa-like traditions around the world. You might authentically share that many children don’t know he’s not real. You might share stories about your own “Santa” experiences growing up.
If you’ve already pretended he is real and are wanting to move into a more authentic approach, you might gently bring up some questions:
“It’s fun to believe in Santa, isn’t it?”
“Do you feel Santa is real? What other stories do you like to pretend are real?”
Or even: “I know in the passed I’ve pretended he’s real, but I did want you to know it’s a game we’re playing, OK?”
If you’ve found this helpful or interesting, please share it. I would love their if this resonates for you, and what your approach has been. Let us know in the comments below of your experience with telling the truth about any kind of ritual or magical story in your home and culture, I can’t wait to hear.