From empty sherry glasses on the mantelpiece to soot-covered footprints leading to the bedroom door, the evidence for Santa’s existence is clearly irrefutable. Still, most children will start asking questions at some point – and many parents anticipate this moment with apprehension. Psychologists have now identified the average age at which Santa skepticism sets in and which children are most at risk of harboring negative feelings when this happens.
While most adults have fallen for the myth that Santa doesn’t exist, many children still believe it – even though the idea of a single individual visiting the homes of billions of children in a single night is at odds with their broader reasoning skills.
Dr Candice Mills, a psychologist at the University of Texas in Dallas, US, and a Santa skeptic, said: “Children usually begin to distinguish fantasy from reality in the preschool years, but their belief in the existence of a singular magical Santa is often continuous into middle childhood.
Mills became interested in this issue when she became a parent and “immersed herself in the world of promoting Santa.” “I felt a bit of tension about this, because on the one hand we often encourage our children to be scientific thinkers and not to mislead others, but with the story of Santa Claus, sometimes there is a certain extension of the truth which accompanies it.
“I was afraid of making my children feel like I was lying, because I knew I had felt upset about lying about Santa.”
To better understand this shift from belief to disbelief and children’s experiences, Mills and his colleagues interviewed 48 children aged six to 15 who had stopped believing in Santa Claus and 44 of their parents, as well as 383 others adults.
THE researchwhich has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that in most children, disbelief set in gradually around the age of eight – although some children aged three or four-year-olds were convinced that Santa Claus was not real, while other children believed in Santa Claus. until the age of 15 or 16. In many cases, it was the testimonies of other unbelievers that ultimately crushed their faith.
Mills said: “They may have had some skepticism based on logical reasoning – like how can Santa really go around the world in one night? – but what pushes them over the edge is a classmate at school who says he’s not real.
About a third of children and half of adults reported negative emotions after being lured by the rumor that Santa doesn’t exist. Although these feelings are usually mild and short-lived, about 10% of adults reported longer-lasting sadness or reduced trust in their parents.
Such feelings tend to be associated with abruptly learning or being told directly that Santa Claus does not exist, making this discovery at an older age, and having parents who strongly supported the idea. existence of Santa Claus, for example by making videos of him in their living room. or leave trails of glitter on the floor.
However, many children reported feeling happy or relieved when they left their faith. “It was like they had solved some kind of riddle,” Mills said.
Although Santa clearly disapproves of such behavior, he will be relieved to learn that, whatever their experience, the vast majority of skeptical adults and children said they would continue the Santa tradition with their own children, or that they already did.
As for how Santa deniers should handle Santa-related questions when they arise, Mills suggested listening carefully to what the child is asking before responding. If they want to know how Santa fits into narrow chimneys or gets into homes that don’t have one, they may not be ready to give up on the Santa idea. Consider asking the child what he or she thinks, talking about what “some people” think, or simply saying “that’s an interesting question.”
If asked directly if Santa Claus exists, caregivers might also use a roundabout question, such as “What do you think?” and see how the child discusses it himself. “There can be some tension sometimes, because they want to continue to believe in magic, but they also want to know the truth,” Mills said. Returning the situation to the child can help caregivers assess their needs at that time.
When her own children asked Mills this question, she initially deflected, but when they said, “I want to know the truth,” Mills told them. “They were very proud of themselves and they celebrated.”
Some children may also be more sensitive than others to being lied to, she added. One of the adults she interviewed said they had felt very betrayed by their parents because they had taught them not to lie, but they did it themselves. Mills said, “In such cases, parents can soften the blow by acknowledging their child’s feelings and explaining why they included Santa in their holiday traditions. »