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Should you LIE to your kids about Santa?

I've talked about trauma...I've talked about abuse...I've talked about breaking generational cycles....

But nothing triggers people quite like talking about Santa.

And that's because those of us who grew up with Santa, almost universally, have big feelings about it. It's a global tradition upheld by dozens of movies, millions of parents, and billions of advertising dollars... not to mention our own emotional and family of origin baggage. And that's why I'm fully prepared to lose more followers after this post than any other one I've written.

But if I chose to avoid it simply because people are triggered by it, that wouldn't be faithful to you. You are in this Whole Parent community because you want to hear about this stuff... even when it's hard. So with absolutely no more gilding of the lily, here we go. Santa.

I want to start by saying that I was "ALL IN" on Santa for my kids. We're talking sending the letter to the North Pole, cookies and milk, sooty boot tracks on the hearth, and time-dilation sleigh theories "all in." And I'm not saying that my enthusiasm was universally a bad thing. I mean how could it be? Giving time and attention to your kids make-believe is like Whole Parent 101.

But what I learned as I studied child development was that they, in fact, didn't "need" any of my help for the magic of Santa to be real... because for kids, it doesn't have to be "real" to be "magical". My insistences on Santa's "reality" were actually detracting from the overall experience for my (extremely intelligent and highly sensitive) oldest child. He didn't need explanations of Santa's reality or proof of the magic of Christmas morning... and I am so grateful that he was able to communicate to us something that I have since learned is a major need for almost all kids (even if they can't express it in such terms):

Santa could just be like everything else mythical: fun and pretend with the assurances that the grownups would respond honestly to honest questions. That might seem obvious to most of us 99% of the time but when it comes to Santa, I myself (and many of the parents I work with) seem to have a bit of a blind spot. And I blame the media .

This is what all the movies about Santa get wrong. They're written and made by grown-ups so they naturally strive to make Santa concrete. It's the exact same plot every time: adults don't believe in Santa but if the kids believe in Santa enough he will become real in a concrete sense...and the adults will be forced to believe.

But paradoxically, when we make Santa concrete, WE DESTROY THE MAGIC (and in the process confuse our kids who otherwise would totally "get it") That's why I've come to realize, those movies aren't for our kids... they're for us.

Now let's get down to brass tacks. Our job is to be the safest people in our kids lives. Basically every childhood development expert I've ever been able to find (even the ones I don't like and generally disagree with) agrees with that statement. Part of being the safest person is being the one person in their life who they can trust to tell them the truth, without question. Santa, before your kids start to work out how impossible the myth is, can be an amazing memory while we maintain our status as being that safest person. But the moment that they honesty and earnestly question it, whether thats 6, 8, or 4, you have a choice to make. "Do I sacrifice being that safest person (potentially forever) for one more year of this myth."

Before you answer that, you should know what the most common emotional response I get when I ask people about their experience of finding out the truth about Santa... is shame (directed at themselves) and anger at their parents for taking the deception too far. And the longer you succeed in carrying on the myth, the more painful the moment is when it all falls apart. For every one person who wished their parents "did Santa" or "didn't tell them the truth" I know many more for whom, it went too far and they felt betrayed, shamed, and hurt. Does every parent take it too far? Of course not! Most don't. But those people don't usually really remember the experience of finding out because it wasn't traumatic!

That's why (as opposed to the majority of other parenting educators I know) I'm not actually anti-Santa Myth wholesale. I just encourage parents to be thoughtful about when and how it ends well.

So to be clear, my feelings are: You can choose to do Santa (or not) for toddlers and young kids but there comes a moment when you have to pick between being a safe, reliable, trustworthy person for your kids and carrying the myth on... and far too many parents (unconsciously) carry it on past that point and in so doing deeply harm their relationship with their kids (usually because they haven't done their own internal work).

So what can you do instead?

Let them be the guide. They're better at this pretending thing than you are. When they ask sincerely "Is Santa real?" respond with "What do you think?"

If they say something like "Yes. I want Santa to be real," simply say "OK then we can believe that Santa is real (for now.)" Take a breath. They've chosen to continue. You didn't force it and that makes it OK. They wouldn't have asked without some misgivings but they're choosing to let those go for the time being. Santa belief is like a fire. They can choose to keep it going for a while but if you don't fuel it, it will burn out. And that's a good thing.

If they say something like "No. Santa can't be real," simply reply "Yes, you're right. Santa can't be real. We just like to pretend Santa is real... and the best part of this pretend game is that ALMOST EVERYONE plays, even grown-ups. But you can always ask me and I will remind you that Santa is just pretend, if you get confused." You've just invited them behind the curtain and they still get to participate in the Santa Myth in a new way without the shame and trauma of being lied to. Santa isn't "over" in that moment. It's just evolved with the development of your child. True, they might feel a little sad becuase you DIDN'T lie to them but I assure you, that sadness will be temporary and likely forgotten in a matter of days.... the shame of being lied to by your most trusted allies and outed in a second grade (or god forbid sixth grade) classroom is not so easily processed.

If they say "I just want to know the truth" I would respond with "I will always tell you the truth." and then continue on to something like "How would you feel if Santa was not real?" This is the trickiest series of events. As I said above, they wouldn't be asking if they didn't have some misgivings but they might not want it to end. This is often times the case for parents who give a lot of big expensive presents from Santa (something I do not recommend for a variety of reasons; big stuff should come from you). The child knows that Santa is shaky at best but it's in their interest to deny their misgivings to keep cashing in. If you determine, through asking questions, that this is the case, end the Santa myth as above. If they truly just want to keep playing pretend (especially if they're under 5) you can offer something like "We can keep believing in Santa together. Remember, I'm always here for you and I'll always tell you the truth. Just ask."

Initially, I wanted to end this by talking about the Naughty and Nice list aspect of Santa and (it's 21st century iteration) Elf on the Shelf, but this post is already quite long so I'm going to make a totally separate post about that as a "Part 2" you'll get next week. Suffice it to say I'm a little more skeptical about that particular aspect of the Santa Myth... but more one that later.

Overall, I sincere hope is that this post has been helpful for you. I know that advocating for parents to not lie to their 6 year olds about Santa might get me in trouble with many of you because you're passionate about this stuff and all want the best for your kids. That said, I hope something in here helps you be the best Whole Parent you can be, even if you disagree.

As always, the BEST person to parent your kid... is you. So I humbly offer this reflection on this aspect of the Santa Myth and I know you'll make the best decision for your family.

See you next week Whole Parents,

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