Is Santa Claus real? If your kids spend the holidays waiting on a jolly fat guy in a red suit to bring presents, you know this question is bound to come up eventually. And then it does…
Whether it’s another kid at school ruining Santa or your child simply hitting an age when they begin to question everything, at some point you’re going to need a good answer to whip out about those flying reindeer and magical toy-making elves.
Before you work yourself into a panic and start wondering what you got yourself into by celebrating Santa at all, take a deep breath. This is a normal part of development for kids, says Jill Gross, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Seattle.
No parent wants to fumble the conversation, especially during the holidays. Here’s a look at how to form the best response to the inevitable question: “Is Santa real?”
What to do when kids ask “Is Santa real?”
Ask why they’re asking
Kids may have started talking at school, or your child may have recently learned that the Tooth Fairy is really mom pulling some singles out of her wallet in the early morning hours. But knowing the “why” will help you use your parental gut to determine your answer, Gross says. After all, your kid may have been put up to it by a pal, but they may not really be questioning Santa themselves.
Ask what it would mean to them if he were real or not
According to Gross, your child’s response to this question will give you insight into whether or not they’re ready for the real answer.
A kid who says they’d be devastated may not be ready to hear the truth and redirecting the conversation may better serve them. A kid who shrugs and says, “I’ve known Santa isn’t real for two years,” on the other hand, is probably better prepared to take the hit.
“It really is a judgment call,” Gross says. “If you get a feeling as a parent that it would do a disservice to your child to answer truthfully, you may want to redirect them.”
Let the child lead
When New York mom Lisa Fogarty responded to the Santa query by turning the question back to her 7-year-old and asking what she thought, Fogarty says her daughter simply lost interest.
“She has not brought it up again,” Fogarty says. “I think she still wants to believe, but I think she has a healthy degree of skepticism, as well.”
By letting her child steer the conversation, Fogarty left the door open for her little girl to make up her own mind or come back later with more questions when she is ready.
Talk about the spirit of Santa
The shine may be off the apple for kids who no longer believe, but the concepts of giving and kindness don’t have to go anywhere. Explaining that can be particularly helpful for kids who are sad or hurt by the news.
“It may be helpful to ask the child if they would like to become Santa and secretly give a gift to a close friend, familiar neighbor, sibling, etc.,” says Lisa A. Wilke, a psychologist at the Center for Mental Health in Blaine, Nebraska. “This can keep the spirit of Santa alive in a new way where the child is giving now versus receiving a special gift.”
Advise them to be kind to other believers
Whether it’s a younger sibling or other children at school or day care, remind your child to keep this newfound reality to themselves and always direct another kids’ questions to an adult.
What not to do when kids ask about Santa
Lie to prevent tears
According to Gross, grief is a normal part of development.
“I think Santa Claus is one of the first ideals to crumble in a human lifetime,” Gross says. “Having a little bit of grief over recognizing the world is not a magical place is natural.”
Instead of whipping out another lie, tell your child it’s OK to be sad, and admit that it’s fun to think Santa is real.
Lie again to avoid feeling like a liar
The moment kids realize their parents have been lying about Santa is a fall-from-grace moment, says Gross. And yet she discourages doubling down with another lie, which will only make kids more distrustful. Instead, give kids context about why you told them this story about Santa.
“Say, ‘This is a story that parents tell their kids,’” she says.
You can talk about the magic of Santa in your own childhood or the fun the story offered for your family.
Give kids too much information
Just because a child is questioning Santa doesn’t mean they’re ready to give up on other magical creatures. Mary Jo Horton, an upstate New York mom, found this out the hard way when her 9-year-old daughter asked if Santa was real.
“She kept at me about whether or not there was a Santa. So I told her,” Horton says. “And figuring it all went hand in hand — Santa, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy — I elaborated and told her about them all. She was absolutely horrified and looked at me with true upset and said, ‘You didn’t need to tell me that much!’”
Horton says she wishes she realized where her daughter was at before sharing all the other details, and she was quick to tell her daughter not to break the news to younger siblings.
So, note to parents: If your child asks the truth about Santa Claus, it’s important to address the conversation. But don’t assume they’ve already made the mental leap to the other mythical childhood characters.
Try to change their mind
No matter how much you want to keep the magic of childhood alive, there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle for kids who no longer believe. So don’t try to force the issue.
“Remember that the Santa experience is about them, not you,” Wilke says. “Do not try to change their feelings, but instead empathize with their experience. Imagine what this might be like for them. Whatever their emotional reaction, it is OK.”