Should I tell my child the truth about Santa?
Santa Claus: the cheerful harbinger of merriment, commerce and deceit, and the subject of many, many (too many?) films. Where is he from? A Dutch legend? An oriental fable? A Coca-Cola ad? It doesn’t matter, because this guy’s not going anywhere. And honestly, that’s what I’m here for.
I believed in Santa in a hardcore fangirl way up until fifth grade, and it seems I passed that on to my 11-year-old son, who still believes in Santa (and the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny ) believes. He may be one of the last of his friends who still believes in it, but he’s been drinking the Kool-Aid that Santa “comes only to those who believe in him,” and he’s persevering.
“When are we going to tell him?” my husband asks, concerned that my son will be mocked. “He’ll be so angry that you lied to him for so long,” my mom warns. “He’s just cheating on you for extra gifts,” my friend tells me. And I get it: logically, it’s probably time to break the news to him. But I’ve decided not to have a “Christmas Talk” with him this year.
You may find it awful that I inhibit his maturity with imagination. There are experts who would agree with this view. Psychologist Christopher Boyle and psychiatrist Kathy McKay published an article in The Lancet in 2016, warning: “All children will eventually find out that they have been consistently lied to for years, and that might make them wonder what other lies.” they were told.” Their concern is that the Santa Claus myth could undermine the bond of trust between parents and children. They also point out that an omniscient North Pole judge watching you even in your sleep is a terrifying concept.
All of that sounds right — the idea of an all-seeing, all-judgmental guy from above is terrifying. It gets kids to behave (and adults too; that’s why different religions have used essentially the same concept for millennia to try to control human behavior).
Several essays written in response to Boyle and McKay’s article argue that they did not provide accounts of children feeling so betrayed by their parents that it inspired a deep mistrust of them. But many people still see Boyle and McKay’s general point of view as a reason kids shouldn’t believe in Santa Claus at all.
Another article I read claimed that while your child could very well be teased by other children for believing in Santa Claus, the bigger problem is your child picking up the wrong lessons about Christmas. It makes the holiday an exercise in getting something for being good instead of being good for giving. I’ll admit that’s a solid point, but it’s still not strong enough to sway me, the die-hard Santa hype man.
Here’s the thing: My son is a kid who loves being a kid. Childhood is a precious and short time in our long life and my son seemed to understand that early on. At 7, he expressed his intention to hold on to his childhood for as long as possible. “Can’t I just stay a kid?” he asked one night after I read him yet another chapter in another Magic Tree House book. I’m sure I answered him something smart along the lines of “You can always be a kid at heart.” But I got where it came from – I grieved deeply for the loss of my own childhood, and a major factor in that grief was the fading magic of Christmas.
“‘Can’t I just stay a kid?’ he asked one night. I’m sure I answered him something smart along the lines of ‘you can always be a kid at heart’. But I understood where he came from.”
Puberty with all its misery is wreaking havoc on my son, squeezing the child out of him while blinding him with hormones and body hair. So that’s it – the final curtain on childhood, and it’s raring to go, begging for a longer run.
I understand he has to let it go at some point. But there’s another important reason I’m holding out for another year, and I never had to deal with that as a kid.
Our city implemented a stay-at-home order on the day of my son’s ninth birthday celebration because of the pandemic. The childhood he cherished so much was ripped away from him, and he had no friends, no school, and no play dates. We drove across the country and stayed at my parents’ house, which meant that my son was suddenly surrounded only by adults and the elderly.
For two years his young life was destabilized and put on hold. There is no way I can make up for the loss of those two years – for all the friendships and fun, the parties and adventures, the school activities and playtime that he lost.
An August 2021 study suggested rates of anxiety and depression among children had doubled since the pandemic began. The effects have so far proven long-lasting, with outcomes ranging from developmental declines to behavioral problems. But I would argue that most effects cannot be quantified by statistics or measured in a study. Since the pandemic, my son has been reluctant to lose himself in the game, especially around his peers. He is afraid of attracting attention or even being noticed. He’s shy, quieter, and more likely to hang out with adults at a party than go out with the other kids. Tragically, despite desperately wanting to hold on to his childhood, it feels like he’s forgotten how to just be a kid.
My son’s last “normal” school year was second grade. He’s in sixth grade now. The reality of what he had to give up due to the pandemic is hard to imagine and I am sure we will see the consequences in the years to come. The more than two years we spent with our lives turned upside down was tough for adults, but for many children it was 25% (or more) of their lives. For a 40-year-old, it would be like spending 10 years in lockdown. I know that over time this experience will become just another part of my son’s longer story and greater identity, but I mourn the loss of my careless child.
Adulthood is coming for him. He will grow, he will change and he will give up childish things. But I’m not pushing him until he’s ready. I will allow him to be a child – to believe in Santa Claus and all the magic that surrounds him – for at least another year. I think we could all use a little more magic in our lives right now.
So if you happen to see my son, no matter what you think about Santa Claus, please: shhh!
Robin Reiser is a comedian, writer and storyteller. She’s on NBC, E! and the Oxygen Network and has written for stage and screen. Her stories can be heard on many podcasts, including Risk and The Only One in the Room. She’s working on a humorous memoir about being a horrible teenager. Robin lives in Los Angeles and Connecticut with her son and husband.
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