How to Tell Your Child that Santa Isn’t Real

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santaIn a circle of women the other night, one of my friends piped up to announce that her middle child no longer believed in Santa. What followed was this collective gasp, a dramatic reaction from moms that included “Shut up!” and “The Horror!” and a sort of slow-motion “Nooooooo!” We laughed, of course, because there are much worse things that could have garnered our reactions, but we’re in the middle of it right now — weaving all the details together for wide-eyed little ones whose smiles can’t be contained on Christmas morning when, once again, the magic that they believe in plays out in half-eaten cookies, reindeer footprints and presents left by a mysterious nice fat man who lives at the North Pole.

Between my own recollection of discovering that Santa wasn’t real (which, by the way, was followed by such love and admiration for my parents whom I realized worked so hard, with no credit, just to make us smile) to the many stories and advice I’ve heard from other moms, I’m more prepared for the day when I’m asked, “Mom, is Santa real?”

When is it time to tell your child the truth about Santa?

While I know moms who hold out the Santa mystery well into their children’s 20s, playing along with the magic with a smirk, a wink and a “You don’t believe, you don’t receive!” even though no one clearly believes anymore, most parents know when it’s time to quit the wishy-washy answers — the “well, what do you think?” or “I don’t know, how else would all of those presents have gotten here?”

Most moms ahead of the game have told me that there’s a look and a plea from a child when you just know that he’s begging you to be honest — and it’s your responsibility to clear up the confusion and provide some explanation. This comes at different ages for different children, and I trust I’ll know when it’s time for mine to know.

When the time comes, how do we explain it?

As with everything else in parenting, there’s no one right way to do this. Some parents explain the history of the real St. Nick, some focus on the spirit of giving, some lay out all the facts with Google searches and Wikipedia printouts of the North Pole and reindeer and the scientific refutations for flying sleighs.

It’s the magic though that provides the best explanation for me — the power of an imaginative story and the way that even make-believe ones can hold so many truths and evoke important qualities in us — our senses of wonder, creativity and our ability to believe in things that we can’t see.

I will explain to my kids that even though they’re old enough to understand that there isn’t one Santa who’s flying around the world shimmying down chimneys, that discovery doesn’t change anything about the meaning of our traditions and the foundation of our holiday. I will ask them about their favorite Santa memories and explain to them how much fun that memory was to create for them — how much watching them squeal at the sight of reindeer prints always reminded me to keep a childish spirit of wonder in my adulthood rather than lose it to skepticism and embarrassment and tight reins on my imagination.

1. Know your child and watch for clues that she’s confused, trying to figure out the truth, or embarrassed around kids who don’t believe in Santa. When your child is at this stage, it’s important to be truthful about Santa and provide a good explanation about your traditions.

2. Explain why you played out the Santa story, focusing on how parents create fun and magic for their children, how they love to see them happy, and how stories — even made-up ones — can powerfully influence us and add joy to our lives.

3. Focus on the unchanging principles in the Santa legend — the joy of giving, the importance of every child around the world, the power of our imaginations and believing in something that we can’t see, and the beauty of creative storytelling.

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4. Be prepared for more questions. This is often when kids want to know about other fantasy figures — is the tooth fairy real, the Easter bunny? Be truthful about those, too, coming back to the same explanations.

5. Be prepared that your child might be upset, disappointed or feel lied to. While this wasn’t my experience as a child, I have a few friends who felt this growing up or encountered it with their own children. Let your child express how he feels and acknowledge his feelings. Remind your child how much you love him and how the joy and fun of the holidays will continue.

6. Talk about your own childhood memories of Santa — what you love about them, what you’ve learned from them and how you’ve linked them to the traditions you’ve created for your children.

7. Invite your child to be a part of the other side of the magic. This is especially great if there are little siblings, cousins or close friends. If your child gets to be in on the secret and helps create Santa magic for other kids, she’ll not only get to still have fun with all the Santa details, but she’ll also get to experience a little bit of what you’ve felt all these years. And perhaps she’ll understand even more that the wonder and magic of the holidays is so much more than a story — but that a story can be a heck of a lot of fun to play out.

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