Editor's note: This story contains frank discussions about beloved make-believe characters like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Beware when reading near little eyes.
Whether we like it or not, everyone does have to "grow up" at some point. While make-believe is a normal part of childhood, some parents may wonder when it's time to break the news that some of their kids' favorite characters aren't exactly what or who children think they are. How can parents do this in a sensitive way? And, more importantly, when should parents have this discussion with their kids?
Should parents tell kids the truth about Santa Claus and other make-believe characters?
Jennifer Kelman, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker at JustAnswer.com, says society often rushes to make children grow up too fast: That includes interrupting the "magic and wonderment that is a hallmark of childhood."
"There is no such thing as being too old to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy," Kelman tells Yahoo Life. "Letting kids figure it out on their own is preferable to parents breaking the news to them. So many are too quick to rush their kids through these moments to get them to grow up faster, but at what cost?"
But Dr. Sheldon Zablow, a child psychiatrist from San Diego, Calif., has a different perspective on parents' responsibility when it comes to make-believe. "It's more important to the emotional well-being of a child that they can rely on their parent to reflect the reality of the world than impose the fun of imaginary beings," Zablow says. "If a parent deceives their child about the Tooth Fairy, Santa or the Easter Bunny, they might disturb the fundamental foundation of long-term emotional health for their child by undermining parents as people to trust."
Experts agree that having discussions about pretend or make-believe needs to occur between the parent and child. While children may inevitably be told certain truths through peers or other means, parents need to follow their child's cues to determine when they're ready to accept and understand the reality of beloved childhood characters.
There's magic in keeping the magic alive
Brandy Bocchino, a mom of two from Powdersville, S.C., tells YahooLife about the time her 6-year-old daughter lost a tooth on vacation at Walt Disney World and was insistent they find the Tooth Fairy.
"She somehow convinced herself (and us) that the Tooth Fairy must be friends with Tinker Bell, so we needed to ask her to pass the word," she recalls, explaining her family set out to meet Tinker Bell at a character meet-and-greet to ask for the favor. "Tink was more than happy to let her best friend the Tooth Fairy know to please stop by the Grand Floridian (the hotel where the family was staying) to find the latest lost tooth for pick up."
Bocchino's daughter is now 13 and, while her Tooth Fairy-believing days are over, Bocchino says their kids laugh at their attempts to cover up their "work behind the scenes." In fact, her daughter heard from other kids about parents acting as Santa, but didn't want her mom and dad to know she knew because of how much work they did to keep it a secret.
Wait until your child is ready to learn the truth
"The key issue is not so much when to break the news to your child, but rather when is your child ready to understand that Santa (or another magical character) isn't real," says Dr. Helen Egger, chief medical and scientific officer at children's virtual mental health provider Little Otter.
"Children will react differently when they accept that Santa (or another imaginary creature) is not real," says Egger. "Some children will be matter-of-fact. Others will have big emotions. Some will feel grown-up."
"It is OK for your child to feel upset," she adds. "Your job as a parent is to listen, acknowledge, accept and empathize with your child's feelings, not to tell them how or what they should feel."
Ally Dorrough, a mom of two from Foley, Ala., shares that her 5 and 7-year-olds still believe in Santa Claus, and it doesn't bother her one bit.
"While I know my 7-year-old's belief may soon fade, it's something special to see them beam with joy from these simple fantasies, especially Santa," Dorrough says. "With my kids being in school, I feel like someone will break the news [about Santa] at some point. I hope to preserve their innocence as long as possible."
There are benefits to believing
While most parents seem reluctant to burst their child's make-believe bubble, experts say that's OK: Engaging a child's imagination has positive effects on their creativity and overall problem-solving skills.
Wendy Kovacs Cortes, who serves as adjunct faculty in the Couple and Family Therapy Department at Adler University, says, "the natural process of shifting cognitions and peer influence will likely take care of [believing in imaginary characters] on its own."
"There is not a specific right or wrong time," she continues. "Research suggests that believing in magic for the sake of magic has long-term mental health and academic benefits associated specifically with hope."
"My hope for children is that they become adults who still believe that some magic exists in the world," adds Kovacs Cortes. "Believing in something that you cannot see or touch, like loyalty or the bonds within a family, shows a shift from childhood magic within a being to the cultural understanding of what magic represents to us."
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