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The world of only children

If and When to “Spill the Beans” About Santa Claus

The benefits of believing in Santa Claus

Should you tell your children the truth about Santa Claus? If so, when? What are the benefits for young minds in believing the myth of Kris Kringle?

Often around the holidays, parents of young children feel torn between whether or not they should come clean to their children about the non-existence of Santa Claus. To many parents, perpetuating the long-cherished myth is one of the joys of parenthood. Others view perpetuating the myth of Santa Claus as a fib when they are trying to teach their children not to lie. It is a dilemma the majority of parents face.   

Science Says Kids Are More Likely To Trust A Lie

It seems obvious that young children will easily believe what they’re told. But, a study in Psychological Science examining trust in three-year-olds discovered that unless kids were given a clue that they were hearing a lie, they will repeatedly trust what an adult tells them. In the experiment, one adult put a sticker under a red cup, but lied that the sticker was under an adjacent yellow cup. With some children, the adult placed an arrow on the yellow cup, helping them notice that what the adult was saying was incorrect. Interestingly, if the children were given a visual hint that what the adult was telling them was false, they were able to figure it out for themselves. But without a clue, the children believed the lie.

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"Children have developed a specific bias to believe what they're told," said researcher Vikram K. Jaswal. "It's sort of a short cut to keep them from having to evaluate what people say.”

Believing Brings Some Unexpected Benefits

Allowing young children to believe in fantastical figures like Santa Claus, North Pole elves and magical reindeer can boost certain skills, according to social psychologist Dr. Lynda Breen. She stressed that letting young children embrace fantasy may be “valuable in their cognitive and social development.” Namely, the magical idea of Santa Claus is also “A symbol of hope and belief in him teaches children the values of role models, family bonding and sharing, as well as promoting cognitive benefits.”

Researchers from Lancaster University found that there’s even more positives in believing in Santa than promoting good values. In a 2010 study, researchers asked children to do certain tasks—like drawing objects and answering questions—after watching clips from Harry Potter films. They found that the clips expanded the children’s imaginations and abilities to think creatively. For instance, without watching the clips, some children weren’t able to draw an “imaginary object,” but were able to do so after engaging in the fantasy story.

The researchers found that besides entertainment, magical thinking “Can be viewed as an additional source of development of imagination and divergent thinking in children…magical thinking enables children to create fantastic imaginary worlds, and in this way enhances children‘s capacity to view the world and act upon it from multiple perspectives.”

And, as time goes on, it’s not likely your child will enter middle school still writing to Santa Claus. Jared Durtschi, at Kansas State University, explains that the transition should be gradual, however. "I don't think it's necessary for parents to decide upon a time to tell their children there is no Santa," Durtschi said. "As children develop, the magical thinking that is so common in kids, which allows them to so readily accept all the details of Santa Claus, will give way and they will soon figure it out on their own."

Every child’s transition period is different. As children grow and start to embrace more logical thinking, they’ll discern for themselves what they believe to be true or not.

When did you “spill the beans” about Santa Claus? Or, did your children make their own discoveries?

Resources:

Breen, Lynda. “What If Santa Died? Childhood myths and development” Psychiatric Bulletin (2004) 28: 455-456. http://pb.rcpsych.org/content/28/12/455.full

Jaswal, Vikram K., et al. “Young Children Have a Specific, Highly Robust Bias to Trust Testimony.” Psychological Science, 2010; DOI: 10.1177/0956797610383438

Kansas State University. "Parents should let kids' beliefs about Santa develop naturally, expert says." ScienceDaily, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121211112721.htm

Subbotsky, Eugene, Hysted, Claire and Jones, Nicola. Watching Films With Magical Content Facilitates Creativity in Children.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2010, 111, 261-277

Photo credit:  <ahref="http://www.flickr.com/photos/malweth/323449605/">

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Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her latest book is The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide.

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