Heads up: this article contains information about the existence of Santa.
Whether it’s Santa, Elf On The Shelf or the Tooth Fairy, every household will have different traditions when it comes to celebrating occasions and milestones throughout the year.
Children will go through the years thinking certain things magical and actually exist, only to find out, eventually, that the reality is a little different.
But at what point does this tend to happen? And should parents be taking the wheel when it comes to making their kids aware of this, or is it okay to sit back and hope they’ll find out via friends and teachers at school?
Who should tell children the truth?
Growing up, I definitely believed in Santa, yet I can’t pinpoint the moment I found out he wasn’t real. It was probably at some point in primary school.
I think I came to the slow realisation as each year passed that he probably wasn’t the person putting gifts under the tree (I also vividly recall he wrote me a letter one year, and the handwriting looked suspiciously familiar.)
Sadly, that wasn’t the case for Catherine Gladwyn, who found out in an extremely jarring way at school. Then 11 years old, she was in class, watching as her teacher went to write something on the board. The teacher stopped herself, turned to the class and said: “No one believes in Santa anymore, do they?”
Gladwyn did, and she was mortified and filled with shame. “It felt like everyone shouted ‘no’ and started laughing as if it was a preposterous idea that we believed in Santa. But I did!” she previously told HuffPost UK.
“I remember being absolutely gutted. I was old enough that it felt crushing, that so much had been a lie. I was actually devastated.”
So who is responsible for breaking this news to children? There’s no right or wrong answer here. But if you choose to do it, as a parent or caregiver, the benefit is that you can take control of the narrative and soften the blow – rather than waiting for your child to find out in a more embarrassing manner, like in front of their classmates.
Holly Zoccolan, a parenting expert and founder of The Carol App, tells HuffPost UK: “While peer discussions are a natural part of growing up, parents often prefer to control the narrative to preserve their child’s feelings and experiences, but this varies from family to family.”
When should you break the news?
Generally, children begin to question the existence of Santa and his helpers between the ages of five and seven, says Zoccolan, as around this time they start to distinguish fantasy from reality – a key part of their development.
“It’s around this age that some children may learn the truth from older siblings or school friends,” she adds.
The question of when you reveal the truth about Santa – or Elf On The Shelf, or the Tooth Fairy – is personal to each family and will depend on things such as your child’s level of curiosity and understanding, and what feels right for you. Studies suggest the average child stops believing by the age of eight.
Experts at Choosing Therapy advise against leaving it until your child is much older.
“It may be beneficial to initiate the conversation before middle school [age 11],” they suggest. “At this point, most of their peers will know the truth about Santa. Allowing them to continue to believe may impact them socially.”
One key sign your child might be ready for the truth, according to Zoccolan, is if they start to ask direct questions about Santa.
“Honesty is important, but so is preserving the magic of childhood. Many parents choose a gentle approach, encouraging the child to think about what they believe and guiding them towards the understanding that Santa can be a wonderful tradition of giving and magic, even if not a living person,” she says.
Carolyn Ievers-Landis, a clinical psychologist in the US, suggested there’s little risk of traumatising children by telling them the truth.
“Children don’t have to be grounded in reality, and it’s normal for them to think about things in a magical way,” she said. And while they might react emotionally to the Santa news to begin with, she suggests this will be short-lived.
It’s natural for your child to feel upset and shocked by the news. Experts advise parents to acknowledge their child’s emotions, and avoid saying things like “don’t cry” or “don’t be sad” which can invalidate and dismiss how they’re feeling.
How to tell your child about Santa
If you think the time has come for your little one to find out about Santa, Zoccolan has shared a few gentle strategies to consider:
1. Answer with a question
When a child asks, “Is Santa real?” you can respond with, “What do you think?” or “Why do you ask?” This allows you to gauge their level of doubt and readiness for the truth.
2. Share the history
Explaining the historical roots of Santa Claus and the stories that led to the modern-day traditions can be a way to transition from believing in a literal Santa to understanding the symbolic meaning.
3. Involve them in the giving
Once a child knows the truth, they can be invited to join the "giving" side of the tradition, helping to choose and wrap gifts, and perhaps even becoming an "elf" for younger siblings or family members.
4. Focus on the giving
Emphasise that the act of kindness and generosity from "Santa" is important for what we show to others.
And remember, just because the tradition of Santa has to change, it doesn’t mean you can’t make lots more wonderful – and equally magical – traditions as a family.