What Children Know

How we learn about fantasy and reality

Imagining the Impossible at Christmas Time

Believing (and disbelieving) in Santa Claus may benefit cognitive development

It’s the question that often raises the most angst and generates the most heated discussion in expecting parents. No, it’s not what to name the baby, or how to decorate the room, or whether to let the child sleep in the parents’ bed. It’s the hesitantly raised question that many consider years before they are even expecting children, “And what about the Santa thing. Do you think we should, you know, lie to her? What will happen when she finds out?”

I’m not going to address the issue of lying in much depth here, because I think this is a personal issue. Parents need to consider whether they are ever comfortable not providing the whole truth to their children. And if so, what kind of misinformation is acceptable. My grandmother always told me there were two kinds of lies, and that “white lies” were OK.

Another perspective is that telling your child about Santa doesn’t require lying at all—parents are simply encouraging their children’s participation in a fantasy. In taking children to a movie, in reading them a book, and in engaging in pretense, we do this all the time. With certain lies, the benefits can justify the means—like how the father in the movie Life is Beautiful convinces his young son that the concentration camp is really a game in which he can earn points to win a tank. This lie saves the child’s life. Parents have to decide for themselves—do the benefits of telling children about Santa outweigh the costs (if any)?

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So, what are the benefits? Research on the benefit of believing in Santa Claus specifically is sparse, but there is research indicating that there may be benefits of having a vivid imagination. Work by Marjorie Taylor at the University of Oregon indicates that children who lead rich fantasy lives have better social skills than other children. It may be that childhood fantasy activities, like having an imaginary friend, provide children with extra opportunities to practice simulating mental states like thoughts and emotions. This then may help these children understand mental states in others. (Of course, it may also be that children who have better understanding of mental states are more likely to have imaginary friends. Since the findings are correlational, we don’t know for sure which leads to which.) 

Believing in impossible beings like Santa Claus may also exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills. The kind of thinking involved in imagining how a set of reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease. This kind of thinking—engaging the border between what is possible and what is impossible is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the Internet.

Finally, and perhaps ironically, the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive (and emotional) development may arise out of the discovery that Santa Claus is not a real physical being residing at the North Pole. This gets to the root of the anxiety felt by many parents considering the Santa myth: “What will happen when my child finds out? Will she hate me for lying to her? Will it dissolve all trust?”

There is only one recent study, by Anderson and Prentice, that addresses this question, and it suggests that, first, most children are not at all devastated by this discovery, and second, any emotional upset is extremely short-lived. Although many parents envision a single and sudden point in time at which their child demands the truth, instead, the discovery process is much more gradual. Children have doubts long before they admit them to their parents. There is a protracted period during which children become increasingly less sure about Santa’s existence.

Toward the end of this period children may actually be looking for evidence to confirm their suspicions, or in some cases even set up their own experiments. My daughter left a camera and a note next to the milk and cookies, requesting that Santa take a picture of himself and leave it for her.

 My suggestion for parents is that, once they sense that children are beginning to doubt, rather than worrying about what they will say when the big question is raised, they help children make the discovery on their own. For example, if you sense that your child is ready for the truth, instead of disguising your handwriting on the presents “from Santa,” use your own handwriting. Put a few “from Santa” presents under the tree the night before. Let your child feel proud that she figured it out.

Children are after all, as Piaget proposed, little scientists. Feeling like they have figured it out by themselves can be empowering to young children. Upon making the discovery they become part of the adult world—they are “in on the secret”—and can derive even more emotional benefit by being given an adult role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.

In the end, even if there are no cognitive benefits of believing—or disbelieving—in Santa Claus, just the fact that it’s fun may be good enough. And it’s not just fun for children—we as adults have so few opportunities to pretend, to fully entertain a magical myth. Whether you consider it a “white lie," a lie whose benefits outweigh its costs, or simply a chance to collectively imagine the impossible, bringing Santa into your family at Christmas can make a special time just a little bit more special. 

Jacqueline Woolley, Ph. D., is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

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