Photo by Daniel Allan/Getty Images
First, before you accuse me of ruining my kids’ childhood, let me say that my three-year-old son and infant daughter will be meeting the Jolly Old Elf at least a couple of times this December. And my wife and I will probably even wrap up a toy car and a rattle and slap Saint Nick’s name on them and put them under the tree.
But as soon as my kids are ready to end the charade, so am I.
Recently, I tried to get a reading on what my son thinks about the whole thing. “Is Santa Claus real or pretend?” I asked him.
“Pretend!” came the answer.
Okay, I thought. That was settled. But then, just to be sure, I asked him, “Is Mommy real or pretend?”
I can only guess at what’s really going on in his mind, but I think that, for him, Santa Claus lives in the same realm as Spider-Man, Curious George, and Lightning McQueen. He loves these characters, and they’re all “real” in the sense that he spends a lot of time with them (through books, toys, and his imagination). But I think he knows on some level that they’re all rooted in the world of make-believe.
For me, there’s a distinction between “pretending” with my kids and “lying” to them. I’m happy to play along with the Santa fantasy for now, the same way I play along when my son tells me that the cardboard box we’re sitting in is a spaceship, or that the swing set is a fire station. But soon enough he’ll come to me and ask me seriously whether Santa Claus is a real person. And when that happens, I’m not going to lie to him.
I think there’s something strange about demanding that my kids buy into dogma that I know isn’t true, especially at a time when they’ll just be starting to develop their critical thinking skills. If my kids say, “Hey, this Santa stuff doesn’t seem to add up,” I want to encourage that sort of questioning and skepticism. But instead, we often tell kids, “Believe the nonsense I’m telling you, or you won’t get anything for Christmas!”
(For something that’s supposed to be fun, the Santa myth sure places a lot of emphasis on children’s paranoia about being placed on the “naughty list.” And don’t even get me started on Elf on the Shelf. That thing is the stuff of nightmares.)
In researching the Santa issue, I came across an online discussion board where a woman said her ten-year-old daughter regularly expressed doubts about Santa, at times getting so upset that she burst into tears. Each time, the mother said, she calmed her daughter down and convinced her to believe again. If you ask me, the kids who are telling the girl the truth about Santa aren’t “ruining” Christmas for her. Her mom is.
If the Santa myth is part of the “magic of childhood,” then we should let it fizzle after kids are able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Once it stops being play, it stops being fun.