This is the time of year when many families celebrate Christmas. For many parents, there is a struggle to decide whether to share the fantasy of Santa Claus with young children. The worry is that doing so feels like parents are lying, and someday their children will realize the fabricated story. Then what are the consequences?
What trust expectations do fairy tales or fantasies set for children?
Parents might wonder if telling a fantasy could impact how much their child will trust them for other things. Is it lying? Does this fairy tale model excuse lying as okay?
In addition to Santa Claus, parents often share other fantasy creatures with children: the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, leprechauns around St. Patrick’s Day. Even Linus struggled with getting others to believe in the Great Pumpkin!
Helpful to “The Magic Years”
When my children were little, it helped me to appreciate that fantasies like Santa Claus can actually be very helpful for children during what Selma Fraiberg called “The Magic Years” (which is also the title of her classic book.)
Fraiberg and other child development experts point out that children, before the age of six or seven, are extremely imaginative. Some create imaginary friends who for them are very real, and who thrive playing all kinds of make-believe games and role-plays.
All this imaginative work is helpful for healthy brain growth, capitalizing on the abilities of a child to be creative. Children can become very engaged in believing in the fantasy world of mythical, magical individuals or creatures like Santa Claus.
As parents find out, young children have a lot of trouble differentiating between truth and fantasy.
Their cortex, the top part of the brain that is all about thinking and being rational, is still quite immature versus the next brain-level down, the limbic system, which is considered the seat of emotions. This is the part of the brain that is involved in developing creative and imaginative abilities that, for the very young child, are unfettered by logic.
As their cortex develops, often around the age of six or seven, a child’s ability increases, toward reasoning about the world and considering what is logical versus illogical. Their newly found thinking abilities then allow them to realize the impossibility of the existence of Santa Claus or the tooth fairy or any other mythical creature.
I can’t remember the exact source, but someone once told me another interesting potential benefit for children believing in Santa Claus. Children feel so beholding to their parents and sometimes feel that they must be grateful for everything given to them that sustains their lives. So when they are told a mythical, magical creature gives them gifts, it can free them from that feeling of having to always be grateful. With Santa, they reason that there is this benevolent distributor of toys who visits all the children in the world!
Fairy tales as enchantment
As Bruno Bettelheim said in his clastic book The Uses of Enchantment, “The child’s unconscious processes can become clarified for him only through images which speak directly to his unconscious. The images evoked by fairy tales do this.” [Page 31]
Mythical images like Santa Claus are much like fairytales for children. In this time of life of great imagination, they can actually assist children to work through some of the feelings and struggles they can have. Santa is always kind, never angry, and only wants to make them happy all the time. Quite a contrast to how children often perceive their parents!
When the time comes— and it always does— when children discover that their parents have not been totally truthful, they typically recover almost immediately from their disappointment and take joy in remembering how special it was to believe that Jolly Old St. Nicholas felt they were worthy of toys and other presents at Christmas.
Invitation to reflect:
- If you were a child who was told that it was Santa who gave you Christmas presents or that the tooth fairy magically left money under your pillow, how did that make you feel? When you found out the truth, how did you respond? Do you remember feeling like your parents were liars?
- How does this information change how you might look at sharing fantasies with your children?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network