Companies spend millions every year hyping the myth surrounding Kris Kringle. But they're not the ones parenting your child - or shouldn't be anyway. Studies going as far back as the 70s all agree most kids figure out the truth one way or another at age 8. So do you or do you not tell your young children about the fat man in the red suit - and just how much can they handle?
Santa's who do shifts at their local malls can earn anywhere from $30 to $75 an hour. Too bad it's only seasonal work. He'd be rolling in money if Santa could sign an endorsement deal. The Coca-Cola company alone spends an average of $3.3 billion on advertising, and without Santa's brand, they'd be scrambling around Christmas time.
Nature vs. Nurture
As a mom, the question of a belief in Santa came up early in my oldest daughter's life. Born in March, she was nearly a year old when her first Christmas came around. For many parents, however, the question comes up unexpectedly. Their child comes home from school or another child-centered space proclaiming that 'Tommy' told them there is no Santa Claus.
On the nature side of the coin, parents might argue that all kids find out eventually. After all, it didn't affect them adversely when they were children. For the majority, they'd be right. Most youngsters come through unscathed by the idea that Santa isn't real and push aside the fact that their parents and everyone else they know essentially lied to them.
On the nurture side, however, that's not always the case. A study in The Lancet Psychiatry shows that children can suffer psychological damage once they discover the lie. It's easy to assuage the conscience by telling yourself it's only a 'white' lie, but to a child, a lie is still a lie. This incidence is doubly true if you're trying to teach them not to lie or disciplining them for lying when they get caught.
The double standard can be confusing and frustrating to young children who are still learning why they shouldn't lie. These lessons can be even more complicated if a child is confused by a lie their parents or other trusted adults perpetuated.
Telling your child that Santa won't bring them anything good if they're misbehaving isn't likely to change their attitude for long. You might get a great moment or two from your little one if they are young, but their shenanigans will inevitably return within a matter of hours or days.
Getting children to behave over the long term is more about consistency and discipline than anything Santa offers. And when you still provide presents to a child who knows they've misbehaved, they might be left wondering where their lump of coal ended up.
Still, in the long run, the debate over whether to tell small children that Santa is or isn't real is more one of preference than necessity. From a very young age, my children learn that Santa, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and other childhood myths aren't real. In others, however, the legends live in the hearts of children writing letters to Santa every winter. When the time comes, these children then grow up to pass them on to their children. These stories become a tradition that is part and parcel of the holiday season.
Clinical psychologist Paul DePompo makes a timely, practical point most parents can appreciate. "When a parent is already consistent in their discipline and positive praise for things like listening, talking nicely, being calm, a parent will often have enough credibility with their child where the child will believe the consequences of bad behavior."
You won't have to threaten that the elf on the shelf will tell Santa and he won't show up or deliver presents for Christmas to get your child to behave. They'll be so afraid of the consequences you lay out that they won't even care about Santa. Positive reinforcement and consistent discipline are the two most significant factors in getting children to behave in the way that you prefer. These two factors can also guarantee that your children behave relatively well all year long instead of just in time for presents.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
It's never a good idea to do something you don't want your child to try. As a parent, it's a general rule of thumb that your children, for the most part, will follow a path you've modeled for them. If, for instance, a child grows up in an abusive home, they are likely to either abuse or suffer from abuse in adulthood.
Deciding to keep the secret of Santa for your children as they grow may be beneficial to their maturing as they grow up. It also means they're likely to keep the secret from their children. Respecting each parent's choice on whether to 'spill the beans' about Santa or other holiday traditions is the side on which we should all fall.