When Do Children Stop Believing in Santa?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you are under 9 years old stop reading this post — it is simply foolish, meandering fiddlefaddle brought on by a cup of really bad egg nog. Any suggestions about Santa’s existence do not reflect the views or opinions of the North Pole. Go back to following your friends on Facebook…

Santa is very real in a metaphorical sense. As Francis Church so eloquently addressed this issue to Virginia: “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world…  Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.”

But sidestepping the poetry, or more precisely, the mythology of Santa, when do children stop believing in the iconic Santa that slips down the chimney to deliver Christmas presents? According to psychologists, most children stop believing in Santa by 8 or 9. The really clever children learn to pretend that they still believe in the hope of getting lots of presents. Carole Slotterback, author of The Psychology of Santa, explains that the realization of Santa (in the traditional sense, as described by Clement C. Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas”) is not real, comes gradually rather than in one defining moment. Charles Smith, a professor of child development at Kansas State University adds, “Kids are smart. They realize he’s not real even before parents think they understand that.” Children learn that they need to let go of a fun family ritual, but realize that they can enjoy Christmas on another level — enjoying the spirit of giving, appreciating family, helping the poor and needy, etc. “A child who sincerely believes at 10,11,12 of the reality of Santa,” notes Smith, “there’s something going on there. That’s the child not letting go. I’d be curious about that. I wouldn’t say that’s wrong. I’d want to know more about that child’s history and family.”

Psychologists also believe that believing in Santa is healthy for children. Matthew Lobber, a child psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital (New York), sees believing in Santa as a normal and healthy part of child development: “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for kids to believe in the myth of someone trying to make people happy if they’re behaving [well]. Imagination is a normal part of development, and helps develop creative minds.” The myth of Santa also reinforces family traditions, values, and can inspire empathy and philanthropy.

Many psychologist agree that the best way to handle the issue of Santa’s existence is not to shatter the mythology, but rather to let them figure it out on their own. If they happen to ask directly, Lorber advises that parents first assess if the child still believes in Santa. If so, then it might be too early to have the discussion about the reality of Santa. If they don’t believe, then parents can discuss the real St. Nicholas (the Bishop of Myra, born in Turkey in 270 AD, and helped the poor) and the spirit of Christmas. Until then, mum’s the word.

But let’s circle back to the initial statement that Santa is very real. Smith builds on what Church wrote centuries ago: “Santa Claus is not real, but what Santa Claus represents for kids, even for adults is true. It’s that sense of joyfulness during this time of the year — this idea that they’re so cared for and loved.”

For further reading: Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia
Mall Santas by the Numbers

For further reading:


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