Ho! Ho! Who? How Kids Understand Live Santa Clauses

The more exposure children have to live Santa Clauses, the more they believe.

There are a lot of opinions about Santa Claus. I mean, we all know he’s a jolly old elf who brings joy and fun and should probably cut down on the cookies a bit. But what I’m referring to is whether parents should be telling their children Santa exists when he (spoiler alert) doesn’t, and what is the best way to tell children Santa isn’t real (again spoiler alert, although consider this a warning for the rest of the blog).

In the past few weeks, a new article has received publicity claiming that telling children the lie about Santa Claus is harmful and breaks down trust between children and their parents. This has led to a number of news stories questioning whether children should be kept in the dark regarding the jolly old elf. Yet research belies this idea—data from my own lab group reports that most children don’t feel lied to or lose trust in parents. In fact, most children don’t even feel disappointed. Instead, they are proud for having figured it out, and, if they have younger siblings, they may want in on the game and fun of the season. As a developmental psychologist with an interest in how children’s social cognitive abilities develop, and particularly how fictional characters and scenarios play a role in the development of those social abilities, I’m more interested in what is happening, cognitively, as children realize the truth behind the myth.

Earlier research by Norman Prentice (former Professor of Psychology, UT Austin) and his colleagues showed that even as children become more knowledgeable about what is real and what is pretend, their belief in fictional characters such as Santa and the Easter Bunny grows. One possibility for this increased belief is that children are hearing a lot of testimony about these characters—they are being told constantly that Santa is real, and seeing evidence from such diverse sources as parents, siblings, teachers, friends, the television, and books. When children do discover the truth about Santa, around age 7, it is gradually, rather than one big realization all at once. Work by Jacqueline Woolley (Professor of Psychology, UT Austin) and colleagues has found that when it comes to fictional characters generally, children usually first begin by doubting the supernatural qualities of the character, and then begin to doubt the existence of the character all together.

Recent work has looked in even more depth to how children start to doubt Santa specifically.  Andrew Shtulman (Professor of Psychology, Occidental College) and colleagues asked children to: 1) write letters to Santa, 2) explain how Santa accomplishes his magical feats, and 3) explain the probability of a variety of physically and biologically rare and impossible events. They found that the better a child was at telling the difference between something that was simply rare (e.g., finding an alligator under your bed!) and something that was actually impossible (e.g., eating lightning!), the more children questioned the reality and existence of Santa Claus. This ability was more important than a child’s age, setting up the idea that maybe children’s own knowledge of the world is more important than what they are told by their parents about Santa and other fictional characters.

Which brings me to the weird reality bending that goes on this time of year all over the United States—live versions of Santa Claus.  Here is a magical man–omnificent, super speed, really smart Reindeer and magical Elves, sitting in the local food court of the mall you visit to get new school clothes! There he is again in a commercial! And at a town parade! And the grocery store, office party, and the other mall!  What is a child to make of all of these live Santa Clauses running about?

To investigate this question, Jacqueline Woolley and I conducted two studies, published in the journal Cognitive Development: In the first, we visited a museum where children could meet a live Santa Claus. After the children talked to Santa and took a picture, we asked them (and their caregivers) a series of questions about their belief and understanding of Santa.  In the second study, we conducted a large scale online survey of parents, and asked them how they explained live Santas to their children, and how they fit live Santa visits in with their Christmas celebrations (or lack thereof).

In the first study, we interviewed children and the caregivers who brought them to visit Santa. We found, unsurprisingly, that parents are doing a lot of promotion of Santa.  Many parents are giving their kids many instances to think about and talk about Santa, including reading books, watching movies, baking cookies, writing letters, and activities like “Elf on the Shelf”.  However, the number of activities didn’t seem to be associated with the age of the child.  Likewise, parents are bringing their children to meet a lot of live Santa Clauses. Only 13% of children visited just 1 Santa Claus. Most children (58%) visit 2 or 3, and 21% of children visit 4 or more Live Santa Clauses in one year!  However, again, child’s age didn’t seem to matter for the number of visits… parents brought older and younger children alike to visit Santa.

But, many of the children (about 60%) were beginning to doubt that the live version in front of them was the same person as the man who came down their chimney. And here, older children were showing more doubt than younger children. This doubt began with thinking that the man in the red suit in the room wasn’t the same Santa as the man who gave them presents, but was magical in his own right, and still could communicate with the Santa at the North Pole.  Then, older children began to think that the man in the room no longer had magical powers, but still believed he could communicate with the real Santa, with the oldest children understanding that the Santa in the room is just an actor. The most surprising result from this study, though, was that children who had visited more Santas actually were more likely to believe he was the real one!  What are we to make of this?  I hypothesize that children are taking the multiple versions of Santa they interact with as evidence of his magical abilities and supernatural status, reinforcing their belief. Children believe the evidence they can see with their own eyes, and experiences they actually have.

In the second study, we surveyed 159 parents. We found again high levels of promotion of Santa Claus, regardless of the child’s age, or level of religiosity of the parents (that is, more and less religious parents were equally likely to do a bunch of activities around the idea of Santa). However, something interesting happened when we asked parents about what was important to them when they took their children to visit a live Santa.  Parents of younger children cared a lot about the picture, and used a Santa visit as a chance to make-believe with their children. But parents of older children cared more about using the visit to reinforce Santa Belief!  In fact, parents of older (compared to younger) children also cared more about the realism of the Santa Clauses they went to visit. These parents rated various characteristics about live Santa (e.g. a real beard, glasses, a fat belly, black boots) as very important, possibly setting up a difference between the details of how older children and younger children are exposed to live Santas. It’s these details we’ll investigate in further studies.

Taken together, the more exposure children have to live Santa Clauses the more they believe in him. And as children get older, parents get pickier about the authenticity of the live Santa Claus. All of this points to the importance of parents in providing experiences for their children to reinforce their belief, while still allowing for the importance of children’s understanding of those events in their developing understanding of Santa.  But, no where in our data did we find that this harms children, either emotionally or cognitively.

So go ahead and enjoy the season. Take it as an opportunity to play with your children, knowing that eventually, they’ll figure out that with a pillow, a beard and a twinkle in their eye, anyone can be Santa.

References

Goldstein, T. R., & Woolley, J. (2016). Ho! Ho! Who? Parent promotion of belief in and live encounters with Santa Claus. Cognitive Development, 39, 113-127.

Prentice, N. M., Manosevitz, M., & Hubbs, L. (1978). Imaginary figures of early childhood: santa claus, easter bunny, and the tooth fairy. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 48(4), 618.

Shtulman, A., & Yoo, R. I. (2015). Children’s understanding of physical possibility constrains their belief in Santa Claus. Cognitive Development.

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