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Magical Thinking

Is Telling Kids Santa Claus Is Real a Bad Idea?

The case for ending the Santa Claus myth

The problem with Santa Claus is several-fold:

First, it might foster the development of what later in life is called “magical thinking” which is a potentially serious cognitive distortion that many therapist struggle mightily to disabuse their clients of. Examples of magical thinking include believing in the power of spells, rituals, mind-reading, and a host of superstitions and irrational beliefs that are often at the core of maladies like OCD and various psychoses (now, I’m not implying that magical thinking causes psychiatric illnesses, only that it is often a symptom or feature of them).

So, if apparently knowledgeable, rational, and reality-grounded adults validate the existence of a white-bearded, cheery old man who happily lives at the North Pole with his wife and a work-force of creative elves; who flies across the globe on a sleigh powered by a team of gravity-defying reindeer; and who somehow delivers a mindboggling number of gifts to an equally gigantic number of only deserving children; well, it sounds pretty magical, right?

And if Santa is real, as well intentioned adults repeatedly confirm, then why can’t the bogeyman, or the many other monsters that live under the bed, or in the closet, or in the shadows be real, too? Yet, adults consistently deny the existence of supernatural monsters while at the same time consistently affirming the existence of magical Santa.

Kids have very fertile and active imaginations. They just don’t need Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny to stimulate their creativity or cognitive development. After all, just about any kid can turn a plain, cardboard box into a rocket ship, a race car, or a fort, and have loads of fun entertaining imaginary friends with make believe beverages!

What’s more, it is likely that a reality-based world view is shaped early in life much like other complex social, emotional and cognitive skills. Obviously, one wouldn’t teach a child the wrong way to read or write or to do math, or how to behave socially, and years later tell him or her the truth of the matter and only then provide the correct information.

Indeed, it is now known that children’s cognitive development is far more complex and starts much sooner than was previously thought. Thus, exposure to reading and arithmetic happens much earlier today than it did in the past because we now know that waiting until a child is five or six to start teaching him or her these skills is a bad idea. Similarly, it is probable that a child’s deeper, psychological and phenomenological development starts very early, too. Hence, exposing children to systematized, delusional ideas until they are “old enough” might influence their psychological development in ways that are, as yet, unknown but possibly bad. So, just as we now do with other cognitive lessons, perhaps it might be better to introduce kids to the psychological realities of life (in an age-appropriate way, of course) as early as possible, too.

Also, there is the matter of trust. Do we really need to undermine the solidity of children’s precious trust in parents and adults by eventually letting them in on nothing less than a vast, elaborate conspiracy and hoax under the guise of innocent, childhood fun and fantasy?

Finally, what about the multitude of bitterly disappointed, crestfallen children who, after being good all year and then telling Santa “in person” what they really, really want for Christmas, do not get the gift they wished for and expected. This sad, “side-effect” of the Santa myth can only be explained away by more deception from adults, or the dejected children will simply conclude that they just don’t deserve what they wanted the most.

So maybe it’s time to announce once and for all “No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus! But Christmas and all of the holidays and observances can still be a time of love, fun, faith, friendship, fellowship, gift giving, charity, and joy.”

Perhaps then, we’ll start a new tradition of teaching children as early as possible the psychologically adaptive world view of reality testing and rational thinking. Who knows what good might come from that?

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

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