When Liz Anderson's 9-year-old son asked her if Santa Claus was real, she froze. Only days before, she had been lecturing him on the importance of telling the truth. Now here he was, tears welling in his eyes, and his younger sister playing nearby.
Anderson, a public relations consultant from Waco, Texas, took her son to another room and told him the truth. They both cried. But a few days later, when her 7-year-old daughter mentioned a gift she wanted Santa to bring her, Anderson's son winked at his mother. A year later, her daughter still believes and her son is still winking, happy to be in on the secret.
Santa can be magical for children but can leave parents conflicted. Is it lying to perpetuate the myth? When should you tell the truth about Santa? What should you say?
Here are some things to think about as you navigate St. Nicholas this holiday season:
1. There's no harm in Santa. Parents tend to set him apart, but he's just one of many make-believe characters in children's minds, says Rebecca Timlin-Scalera, a neuropsychologist in Norwalk, Conn. ``Don't think of it as a lie or a hoax. It's really an extension of all the magic and make-believe they have when they're kids,'' she said. Eventually they figure out how to separate fact from fiction, with no harmful consequences.
2. Santa can actually help. From birth to around 8, children are concrete thinkers who see the world in black and white. Kids like an all-good character like Santa, who ``conveys that the world is a safe place and people are loving,'' said Dana Dorfman, a New York-based child psychotherapist. As kids get older, they understand that people can be a mix of good and bad, and they have less need to believe in characters like Santa.
Santa shows kids generosity and kindness and other behaviors they can emulate. And Santa can also help kids develop problem-solving abilities. Many a kid lies awake thinking through tough questions like how Santa can get all those gifts to all those children in one night.
3. Is Santa real? When a child asks you about Santa, experts suggest bringing the conversation back to them to figure out where they are emotionally and what kind of answer they want to hear.
Robert Resnick, a psychology professor at Randolph Macon College, says some kids want a yes-or-no answer, and you should give it to them. But he says kids rarely ask outright, since they want to keep getting presents. If they seem to want to keep things ambiguous, you can too, with a comment like, ``Santa is someone we all like to think about.''
Bring kids off the magic as gently as you can. Timlin-Scalera suggests telling kids that Santa is about giving. If they want a more concrete answer, a parent might say, ``Santa is a make-believe idea, but the story of giving and generosity is real. It's just that Mommy and Daddy take on that role.''
With some kids, you can have fun with it and problem-solve together. Thinking aloud about whether reindeer can really fly, for example, can let a kid down easily while reinforcing that the story is a fun fantasy.
4. Respect kids' limits. While it's fine to let kids believe for as long as they want to, parents sometimes take things too far when they force kids to sit on Santa's lap, for example, or make kids write a letter to Santa. Santa is a stranger, and kids may not want to be overly familiar or trusting.
Another no-no is telling skeptical kids that they won't get presents unless they believe in Santa. Kids should take Santa only as far as they want to.
5. Don't use Santa as a weapon. Parents should avoid generalizations like ``If you're good all year, Santa will come,'' because ``good'' is too vague and general a term for a young mind to grasp.
Charles Smith, a Kansas State University child development professor, says that threatening kids _ saying Santa won't come if they don't eat their vegetables, for instance _ undermines the family's shared enjoyment of Santa. He remembers a student whose father would take him driving on Christmas Eve to look for Santa and would laugh when his son couldn't find him. Instead of having a shared, joyful moment, the student felt betrayed, Smith said.
6. Involve the family. When older kids know, ask if they want to participate in playing Santa for younger kids. Many kids _ like Anderson's son _ are so proud to be in on the secret that they're quick to get over learning the truth. It's also good to let older kids see the pleasure you have in playing Santa.
7. Don't overthink. Kids will find out about Santa one way or the other and it won't be the end of the world. ``Don't negate the fantasy, don't think too much, just be kind and open and loving with them,'' Resnick said.