Lying to the kids about Santa Claus: a psychiatrist's view

The Santa Claus myth is an easy one for children to absorb.
The Santa Claus myth is an easy one for children to absorb. 

The story of the serial judgmental housebreaker is one children can easily relate to.

As usual this Christmas, after a year of treating delusional beliefs and realigning people with reality, I will be dressing up as a red-and-white bearded individual who single-handedly catalogues and rewards every child in the world with no regard for economic ramifications.

My children know that I'm not the real Santa Claus because of my dark skin. Naturally this is where the logic in the Santa Claus fable breaks down.

Psychological experts have been surprisingly supportive of the practice, on the few occasions that they have commented on it.

Despite the increasing sophistication of our youth and changing parenting styles, the issue of global deception of our youngest regarding a serial judgmental housebreaker still seems strong. Psychological experts have been surprisingly supportive of the practice, on the few occasions that they have commented on it. Child psychiatrist Lynda Breen wrote in 2004 that encouraging children to believe in Santa Claus would "foster their moral development" – specifically regarding the issue that an entity that "knows if you've been bad or good" was a "useful ace up a parent's sleeve". I've always been a bit suspicious of child psychiatrists.

The Santa Claus myth is an easy one for children to absorb. Everyone likes getting gifts, and children are great believers in natural restorative justice. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany discovered that children as young as three felt a need to return items to puppets that had had their belongings "stolen" by another puppet. A non-threatening magical figure who rewards the good for being good slots instantly into the most undeveloped psyche.

The part of the myth that has always been controversial is the issue of children being encouraged to believe something they will inevitably disavow. To study this issue, Carl Anderson and Norman Prentice, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin, in 1994 interviewed 52 children who no longer believed in Santa Claus, as well as their parents. They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that children generally discovered the truth on their own – at about age seven. What was significant was that the children generally reported that finding out the truth was a positive experience – however parents were the ones that were sad at their children's loss of innocence.

Perhaps this is the reason for the persistence of the tale, and why we are sad when our children no longer believe, yet they seem to appreciate the act of understanding more of the world and are only too happy to rekindle the legend for their own children. The New York Sun's famous editorial from 1897 of "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" pointed out the essential fallacy of negating a childhood figure. As adults, we do not understand the Santa Claus story, but children understand it very well indeed. We see it as commercial kitsch and irrational subterfuge, yet strangely necessary. They understand it simply as pure joy, and the natural order to the world.

Every Christmas, stories – true and otherwise – of joy, grace, and goodwill abound. I can't pretend that there are airtight psychological reasons to keep Santa alive, but perhaps you don't need airtight reasons. I think the best justification is that the ones who believe are the ones who actually understand what he means. And that's reason enough.

Dr Neil Jeyasingam is a psychiatrist and lecturer at the University of Sydney.

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