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“The other night after dinner, my 7-year-old said, ‘Mommy, I think Santa is a real man but I don’t think he brings presents to everyone,’” Anna Fink, a mother of two in Washington, DC, tells Yahoo Parenting. The Fernandez-Finks celebrate Christmas in both the US and in Mexico, where the legend of the Three Kings is more prevalent than Santa Claus. For the Kings, kids tie their wish list to a balloon and send it into the sky. That struck Fink’s daughter as a more legitimate process. “Her reasoning was that it’s obvious Mom and Dad can read her notes to Santa since they stay in our house, but the Three Kings she’s really talking to directly, via balloon,” says Fink.
When kids like Fink’s daughter start reasoning through the glow of holiday enchantments, digging for “truth,” what’s a parent to do? We talked to Amy McCready, Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of “If I Have to Tell You One More Time,” and Zina Harrington, communications expert and Founder of parenting site Let’s Lasso the Moon, for advice on keeping the magic alive.
Set Up the Story
“Santa Claus doesn’t have to be the focus of Christmas,” McCready tells Yahoo Parenting. Make sure that from the start, your kids also know something about the holiday that’s within your family tradition but unrelated to elves at the North Pole. One idea: “Teach them the story of St. Nicholas of Myra, a real person, who gave gifts to those in need,” says McCready.
Turn the Question Around
“When a young child asks if Santa is real, the best approach is to turn the question back on them,” Harrington tells Yahoo Parenting. Respond with, “What do you think?” “Their answer will give you clues to how much they’ve already figured out and what they want to hear,” says McCready. “Are they looking for the truth or reassurance that it’s okay to keep pretending?”
When Kids Become Detectives
Sarah Cooper remembers her five-year-old Christmas, when she came downstairs to find Santa’s boot prints in the ashes of their fireplace. “I studied the prints, then ran down to the mud room and got my dad’s work boots… they matched,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. But did it take away from the magic? No. “I went on to believe in Santa for a few more years, I just wanted to say ‘Gotcha!’ to my dad.” Most kids let go of believing when they’re ready, and Harrington advises parents to be cautious of trying to create “proof” that Santa exists. “If they’re asking things like, ‘How does he fit down the chimney?’ you can turn the question back on them just like when they were younger,” she says. “Say, ‘How do you think he does it?’” That leads to fun conversations that you can steer toward the magic of Christmas rather than the logistics.
Once They “Know”
“Whether the kids figure it out on their own or you tell them the truth as they get older, you can preserve the specialness of Santa by celebrating the fact that they’re now part of the club of magic makers,” says McCready. Harrington recommends recruiting kids with this new knowledge to help spread the spirit to younger siblings and relatives (“You get to be part of creating this secret magic for your little brother! This year will be so much fun!”). “Celebrating the milestone in a positive way will allow your child to feel confident and honored to be part of the elaborate rouse being staged worldwide,” she says. And a bonus: “If you explain that you are now entrusting this information to them, they are less likely to tell other children, because they’ll want to participate and keep it secret.”
Give Older Kids a Role
“You might start with handing over the all-important duty of devouring the cookies and milk on Santa’s tray after everyone’s gone to bed on Christmas Eve to make sure littler ones in the house keep believing,” says Harrington. “Kids get a charge out of leaving some crumbs as ‘evidence,’ and you’ll get the joy of seeing the twinkle in their eye as they partake in your family’s special traditions for keeping the world’s best-kept secret alive.” And what parent wouldn’t want to pass along the new nightly duty of moving the Elf on the Shelf? Delegate that!
Handling Negative Reactions
Some kids will be relieved to know the truth, but others may feel betrayed that you “lied.” One thing to avoid: “Don’t tell kids that Santa only brings gifts to those who believe,” says McCready. “It creates a high level of anxiety in kids are beginning to question whether Santa is real but don’t want to be left out.”
Robert H. of New York tells Yahoo Parenting that his son found out about Santa just this month due to a feature on amazon.com that catalogs past purchases (his son discovered old “from Santa” gifts in the mix). “He cried himself to sleep that night, and to this day we haven’t confronted the issue directly,” says Robert. In a case like this, McCready advises differentiating between a lie and the truth of the spirit of Christmas. A great example of this tack is shared in a letter from mom Martha Brockenbaugh to her daughter Lucy when she found out about Santa. In part, it says, “Now you know the secret of how [Santa] gets down all those chimneys on Christmas Eve: he has help from the people whose hearts he’s filled with joy.” A shareable truth is that while Santa Claus may not be flesh and blood, the feelings of love that the Ho-Ho-Ho holiday creates for kids and families are very real.