As your child grows older, you may wonder when's the right time to address the Santa question. Fortunately for parents, most children begin to learn the truth slowly so that by the time you have the talk, your child is ready to listen.
"It's not an overnight shift in thinking," says Laura Lamminen, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children's Health℠, "and there's no set age where children should know the truth about Santa Claus."
Dr. Lamminen says each family and each child within that family will be ready to talk about Santa at different ages. By knowing your own child and traditions, you can find the right time to have the talk.
The right age to talk to your child about Santa
Different factors affect a child's ability to believe, including:
- The family's traditions and stories about Santa
- The child's cognitive development
- If the child has met a very realistic Santa Claus
- What other children are saying at school
Dr. Lamminen says that for typically developing children, the years between age 7 and 11 mark a big change in thinking. Younger children are more imaginative, but not very logical, making it easy to believe in Santa. By age 7, believing starts to become more difficult.
"During this time, they develop concrete reasoning and gradually start to think more logically and abstractly," says Dr. Lamminen. "They start to question how reindeer fly and how Santa eats all those cookies without getting sick. They begin to understand it might not be physically possible for Santa to do all these amazing feats."
Once your child starts asking those questions or asks if Santa is real, it might be a good time to start the conversation with your child.
Tips for explaining Santa Claus
When you sense your child is ready, you can start the Santa conversation by asking your child what they believe. Your child may surprise you and say they don't believe in Santa at all. If they say they do believe, ask them why and what makes Santa special. Your child's answers can help guide you on how to approach the topic and if you believe they are ready to learn all information about Santa. A child who earnestly believes may need more time or a more sensitive conversation than a child who is already skeptical.
You may decide to tell your child about the origins of Santa and the story of St. Nicholas. You can focus on the spirit of generosity around the holidays and ways that your child can help be part of that spirit, too.
"While there isn't a physical Santa Claus, we can live and embody kindness and generosity," says Dr. Lamminen. "Families can give to people in need, volunteer around the holidays or adopt kids from an angel tree."
If your child becomes upset, listen and reassure them that your holiday traditions will remain the same. Be empathetic and understand that change can be hard.
Keeping the secret
If your child learns Santa is not real, or if Santa was never a tradition you participated in, you can still discuss what this information means for other people's holiday traditions.
"You can tell them that our family believes this, but other families believe other things and it's important to respect that," says Dr. Lamminen.
If you want to encourage an older child to preserve the magic of Santa for a younger sibling, consider making them Santa's helper. Dr. Lamminen says special tasks can help your child gain control over the situation while keeping the secret. For instance, your older child can help you wrap presents, move the Elf on the Shelf or put out presents.
"If they have some control over it, even if they are losing this really important figure, it can ease the tension over time," says Dr. Lamminen.
Whether all of your children believe or not, you can ensure every holiday season is special by making time to be together and give to others. After all, teaching your child the importance of generosity is what Santa Claus would truly want.