Imagine you’re 3 years old, and a fat, bearded man in a red suit starts laughing in your face. You’d be confused. Scared. And you’d probably run to mommy. So when and how do you tell your child about who, exactly, this man is?
They should be ready to understand the background story of Father Christmas at about age three, says Dr. Jerome Singer, professor emeritus of psychology and child study at Yale University and a specialist in children’s imagination. “Before that it’s confusing to the child. At 3, 4 and 5 years, children are doing a great deal of pretending and make believe anyway.”
Either way, you can’t escape the myth. “If your children go to school and are part of mainstream society, then it’s hard to see how you can avoid it,” says clinical psychologist and author Oliver James. “At age 2, 3 and 4, children are living a wild fantasy life already. The idea that there is a big man flying around the world giving gifts shouldn’t be a hard sell,” he says.
Parents shouldn’t worry about participating in the great red-and-white lie. “Lying is an integral part of life from an early age; children witness parents saying ‘tell him I’m not in’,” says James. “So there’s nothing too complicated about that.”
In fact, fantasizing about Santa’s adventures could benefit a child’s cognitive development. “There are many advantages for the child developing relatively early a capacity for pretending and imagination,” says Singer. Children with active imaginations at an early age learn new vocabularies, master the idea of possibilities by experimenting with different social situations, trying them out and seeing what works and what doesn’t, so they learn to self-regulate, he explains.
Communicate with your kids in a playful way about the Santa myth, says Singer, and be alert to factors that will confuse them, including different Santas appearing in shops and on TV. Most kids find out the truth from siblings or at school. Don’t push kids who want to believe but prepare them for the truth as they hit early school age.
Give Christmas Meaning Oliver James, author of “Affluenza”
Oliver James, author of “Affluenza,” a book about how our competitive consumerist culture makes us anxious, suggests ways to give Christmas a noncommercial meaning:
Create games, rituals and traditions
Find a film that the family can watch together, “The Sound of Music” or “Casablanca,” and watch it every year, creating rituals away from the consumption of gifts.
Remind your kids that money and possessions aren’t going to make them happy, throughout the year, and that richer people aren’t necessarily happier.
Make them ad-savvy
Kids love impressing you with their cleverness. Teach them how to decrypt the ads that try to sell them products they don’t need throughout the year — or let them watch advert-spoofing “The Simpsons” — and they’ll be wary come December.