Here is a NYT opinion page on how and when to tell kids the truth about Santa Claus posted before Xmas. Won't do much good this year, but I thought it was relevant and might help someone who hasn't gotten to that part yet.
Several columnists break into theories and studies and other stuff relating to the story about Santa. The gist, with my own ideas:
- kids know or learn the difference between imagination and reality, a developmental stage of early childhood. The Santa story does give them something early to be skeptical about. Most kids figure it out by asking a lot of questions and observing how little sense it makes.
- On the other hand, some children decidedly choose to continue to believe in Santa after they have figured it out, until they outgrow it, because they know pretending is fun.
- Quite not so good, some children continue to believe in Santa or act as though they do because they don't want to disappoint their parents. Believing in Santa is as much or more a fondness for the parents than it may be for children, as a period of innocence and wonder that passes too quickly; parents are sentimental and don't want to let it go, so are advised to prepare for the end of belief in Santa rather than force it - good advice for those who go this route.
- One really bizarre columnist thinks belief in Santa (or the theories he presents when asked for the truth) would promote an interest in science. F'reals, because Santa has advanced technology.
- The final columnist lays down some really good reasons to avoid the myth of Santa or pitfalls of the myth to avoid, and portions of the myth to highlight. Bad= ignoring children's fears of the costumed Santa; using Santa for disciplinary reasons; sending mixed signals about lying; consumerism. Good= imagination, kindness, generosity, joy, and critical thinking eventually.
The comments for that article go one for 22 pages. I read the first page, and a variety of experiences that also might be helpful examples or bad examples to avoid. Some parents are worried of depriving their children of Santa, or are not worried and wonder if they should be. Some were not raised in myth, or are raising their own children without the myth - well, they are treating it like a myth rather than going for the angle of pretense. Few, if any, feel that not being lied to was harmful or that they missed out on something. Most think the lie was fun enough for when they were a child - I think this is how it persists as a custom. One parent responds how they are weaving such an intricate web that has their poor foolish children fooled so far but that will likely be messy when the truth comes out - and admit to being stuck there.
At age five my son is asking a LOT about Santa. His line of questioning is exponentially larger than last year. As we wing our way through countless conversations, my wife and I have weaved such a complex and complete web of lies to uphold Santa's existence that I am plagued with guilt. Santa has a giant telescope to tell if you're naughty or nice. He has rockets on his sleigh. He uses the front door since we don't have a chimney. He has many, many helpers. My office phone has received numerous "calls to Santa." I can only pray that we DON'T have a white Christmas so I don't have to explain why there are no skid and hoof marks -- or, worse yet, go out in the middle of the night and create them. Speaking of prayer, my son has even begun to draw parallels between Santa and God, for in his mind they both have the ability to scrutinize your every move. My question is, when this mountain of untruths comes tumbling down, will he believe anything I tell him again?
I realize this information comes too late for this year, but I just stumbled upon it today. I thought it had a lot of good information to help you decide how to go about it if you do. I think even on the whole, the columnists and commenters do not seem like they are making exceptions for god (as true) and acknowledging hypocritically that Santa is untrue; it seems to make a good case for letting children conclude things on their own with a parent's guidance. Although a few phrases pop up that seem respectful enough of religious beliefs to readers who have them, most of it seemed to respect reason more clearly. If you don't believe in god, you can still probably rest easy telling your children Santa is real and wait for them to figure it out. Some parents also describe Santa differently to avoid lying, but acknowledging him as a character, which of course can still be fun.