The character of Santa playfully embodies so much of the Christmas spirit and taps perfectly into a child’s developmental world of imagination. And yet, trust is at the core of gentle parenting, which means I do not lie to my children—ever.
Is it really a lie?
Did you state something as fact that you actually knew was not accurate? To your child who implicitly trusted you? While manipulating things in their environment to support their continued belief? Ya, that’s definitely lying.
So we choose to embrace the legend of Santa without lying to our children.
“Say whaaaaat? Santa’s real!?”
Not exactly. I have actually found that the language of our freethinking parenting philosophy lends itself perfectly to Santa’s inclusion in our holiday fun. Our children are inundated with Santa Myth through television, books, friends, family, stores, etc. He’s inescapable, in a jolly kind of way.
When these exposures and interactions stir our children’s curiosity, they come to us with questions just like they do with all areas of natural learning from plants to planets. Language is powerful—so much so that it actually creates our realities. We choose a reality in which wonder has room to play and your people are trustworthy.
How should I answer my kids’ Santa questions?
When they ask us questions, we preface our answers with things like, “The legend says that . . .,” or “Many people believe . . .,” or “I like to imagine . . .”
We then encourage them to seek their own answers with questions like, “What do you think?” or “What do you believe?” or “How do you imagine that happens?”
Should I use Christmas characters as a threat to elicit good behavior?
Since our children are not being raised in a paradigm of obedience to authority and behavior modification with rewards and punishments, the mechanism of Santa as a threat to manipulate their behavior obviously does not resonate with them or us.
“If I cry, will Santa not bring me presents on Christmas?”
“You will get presents every Christmas because gifts are a joy to give and receive. You know that all feelings are welcome in our family and our home will always be a safe space for us to cry.”
Speaking of home being a safe space, Santa’s spy Elf on a Shelf is creepy AF guys. I know some wonderful families who invite a little elf into their homes to create mischief for the children to discover each morning—lovely. Telling your kids there’s a little man who sneaks into the house to watch them while they sleep and report back for their behavior to be judged . . . just no.
Does it really do any harm to make them sit on Santa’s lap for a picture?
We also need to have a serious talk about Santa pictures. As with all traditions, “because it’s been done for a long time” is not a good enough reason to do anything that goes against your child’s best interests. (Listen to episode 38 of the Sage Family Podcast on Simple Holidays for some thoughtful holiday traditions.) If some random stranger in the middle of a chaotic mall asked to hold your terrified baby, would you cleave them off your chest and place them in his custody while they scream in terror? Of course not.What does that teach them about their ownership of their body? Does that enhance the trust between you or violate it? To top it all off, you take a photo and share it publicly and everyone has a good laugh at their trauma. Maybe take a pause and allow your child to guide the Santa interaction experience.
We were at the mall shopping when West was 2 and he caught a glimpse of all the Christmas cheery cheeries so he asked if we could go check it all out. As we approached, he saw Santa and asked if he could talk to him (he saw another child sitting in his lap).
Mama: “Do you want to sit on his lap while you talk to him?”
West: “No. I want to walk and you can hold my hand.”
Mama: “Okay. Santa, West would like to talk with you.”
Santa: “Come and sit on my lap little boy!”
Mama: “He would like to talk to you right here.”
Santa: “Okay, what would you like for Christmas?”
Santa: “Good choice West. Here is a candy cane for you.”
West: “Thank you!”
We walked away hand-in-hand and he felt respected, proud, and touched by the magic of Christmas.
When should they stop believing in Santa?
Many people wonder when that magic of Christmas “should” wane? At what age is it no longer “right” to believe in Santa? The truth is that as with almost all aspects of parenting, there is no “should” or “right,” there is only your specific child on their unique developmental journey. The most important piece of a child’s evolution through the Santa myth is that it unfolds naturally. Your child will see evidence in the world around them and over time that evidence will paint a picture. If you have never lied to your child, there will be a clear path down which they can walk and with trust intact, they will hold your hand as they walk it.
How to explain the full truth of Santa when they are ready.
When confronted with the difficult questions of a child transitioning through the Santa myth, many a parent has thrown down, “Santa brings a gift to those who believe in him.” It sounds nice enough. My concern with this approach is that it puts up a wall between you that discourages honest and open communication about something that could be deep for your child while also encouraging intentional ignorance. If my child is experiencing big uncomfortable wonderings (cognitive dissonance: confronted with new information that challenges previously held beliefs), I want them to bravely and openly embrace that process of accommodation. You see, I don’t ever want my child to be afraid to learn.
My children all got to a point where they point blank asked me, “Is Santa real?” I responded, “If you ask me a question, I will always tell you the truth. I also know that Santa is fun to believe in. It feels magical and spurs your imagination. Do you want me to answer that question?”
When my eldest, who is relentlessly inquisitive and always wants to know everything about everything asked, she immediately replied with a staunch, “Yes!”
When my second asked, he thoughtfully paused and walked away changing the subject. The following year he asked again and was ready to hear the answer.
“Do you believe in Santa?”
“The magic of Christmas is so fun to believe in that I love to think about the legend of Santa and imagine it in my mind. Do I believe that he puts presents under the tree? No, because as a parent, now I get to create the magic of Christmas for my children.”
“I like that.”
My third stated, “I know Santa doesn’t really bring these presents,” and I responded, “But it sure is fun to pretend, isn’t it?”
With all of my children, after they hit a point of logic that could not be overcome with their imagination alone, we looked into the origins of the Santa myth (this article is an interesting read: The Real Story Behind Santa Claus) and the Christmas holiday and walked away on a very positive note thinking about continuing the legacy of the spirit of giving and the celebration of the winter season (you can read about how we celebrate winter solstice here). The magic doesn’t die, it transitions from literal to figurative—it takes a new form.
Will belief in Santa undermine belief in God?
Mythical figures are usually a child’s first experience rationalizing their way through an inherited belief. Think about it: we tell our children that an old man with mystical powers is always watching and judging from above and expect that they’ll eventually figure out that it’s not real—that the stories are metaphors to inspire values that we hold dear.
I’m not suggesting that if you believe in a literal interpretation of religion and hope to impart the same belief system within your child that you should not allow for the magic of Christmas, but I would be remiss if I were to write about the development of belief and not include the parallel.
Should I ask my kids to keep the Santa secret for other children?
Secret keeping is a slippery business that we don’t patron. Remember when I said that we don’t lie to our children? That calibrates their integrity for honesty across the board. No matter how well intentioned, I am not going to encourage my child to lie to those they care about in order to avoid uncomfortable conversations. The ramifications of setting that precedent are dangerous (let’s not do sexual predators any favors).
It is okay for people in community with each other to hold different beliefs. A Christian can be friends with a Jew and a Muslim and an atheist who all hold different beliefs that they each believe to be the singular, sacred truth. That is diversity and we are better for it. That is the lens through which we handle conversations around Santa.
“You don’t believe in Santa? But he’s real!”
“It’s okay for us to have different beliefs. It’s actually wonderful how we can all hold different beliefs and still be friends. Diversity makes the world better.”
Like building fairy houses in your garden or reading imaginative stories at bedtime, you can embrace the fanciful spirit of Christmas and its playful traditions without stepping out of alignment with your parenting values and damaging the delicate trust that exists within a secure connection.
Hang stockings if you like. Read books about a jolly man in a white beard flying through the sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer if it tickles your fancy. Feel free to sing carols and tie packages with bows and eat all the frosted holiday cookies. Just hold that trust sacred while you do it.