Who brings the presents at Christmas? Santa Claus! This is what many parents tell their children. But maybe the lie harms the little ones? How do you tell children about Santa Claus? The child psychologist Ina Blanc gives the all-clear, and advises how to tell them when they find out Santa is not real.
Ina Blanc, many parents tell their children that Santa Claus bring the presents for Christmas. A fantasy world is built up that has nothing to do with reality. Isn’t that some kind of abuse of power?
Imagination alone is not an abuse of power! It always depends on the purpose with which you tell stories. If one says: If you are not good, then Santa Claus comes, puts you in the sack and takes you with you, these threats are surely a kind of abuse of power. But if you tell the child stories to enchant his everyday life, I would not speak of abuse of power as long as you give the child the freedom to believe in it or not. Then this is an inspiration that helps the child develop creativity and imagination. Stories are very important for children. With the help of stories and images, they can process emotions better and learn to deal with their impulses more constructively.
Nevertheless: With fairy tales and other stories, you don’t tell the child that there are really magical characters, dragons or witches. With Santa Claus, you consciously link reality with the invented story.
There are actually studies that say that it is bad and that it destroys the children’s basic trust. I am skeptical. Telling stories is certainly not harmful, unless the parents insist that it must be true. There are also studies that say that it is positive to enrich children’s everyday lives with stories. The children spontaneously pick out the message they need at the moment from the stories.
Many parents have a strong need to tell these Christmas stories to their children. Why actually?
I think it’s just magical. Santa Claus, the Christ child, the decorations are good for everyone in this dark season.
If you lie and insist that the character really exists, it becomes problematic.
They say you shouldn’t threaten Santa Claus won’t visit as a punishment. But can’t the myth also help to convey values to the children?
Fairy tales are always about good and bad. This is very helpful for child development. The stories help them deal with their own and very different aspects of their personality. Santa Claus also has a moral aspect, of course, the shape goes back to St. Nicholas: a good and generous man who gives something to the poor children. It has a role model function. That is a good thing, but I think it is unfavorable to combine a moral punishment function with it.
Tips to tell children about Santa Claus
What is the best way for parents to react when children have first doubts about the character’s existence?
If you no longer want to believe in Santa Claus or the Christ child, you can. The parents have to accept that. I think honesty is the best. One can explain that the story is a beautiful ritual. If you lie and insist that the character really exists, it becomes problematic.
At what age do children usually start to see through the theater?
That is completely different. It also depends on the sibling row. The first child often believes in Santa Claus or the Christ child longer, the last child often knows the truth earlier. In general, many children become skeptical at the beginning of primary school.
When the children find out that their parents have told them a fairy tale for years, do they start to question many other things?
I think if the parents are honest and let the child grow in its natural rhythm, then the realization that Santa is not a real person is a normal step in development that does not shake all areas. Well, maybe the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy, but the child will not generally doubt the authority or honesty of the parents. But if the parents insist on the story, then they make the child doubt himself, even though he is actually right. That is unhealthy. Then it will also question parents’ credibility in other areas.
Who cares when the truth comes out? The parents or the children?
Probably the parents. It is a normal development process for the children. The children find it rather funny and proud when they find out that Santa Claus or the Christ child doesn’t exist. But for the parents it becomes clear that the child is getting bigger, a special time is over.
Ina Blanc is a psychologist at the Center for Developmental and Personality Psychology at the University of Basel, where she is head of further education in child and adolescent psychology.