One day, my daughter came to me and said, matter-of-fact, “Mom, I know Santa’s not real.”
I got down to eye level with her and invited her to tell me more.
“I just know that he’s made up,” she said.
I wondered out loud if there was anything she wanted me to know. She thought for a moment and confidently said, “I don’t want to play Santa anymore.”
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This conversation with my daughter and the hundreds of messages I receive from parents each year inspired me to write this blog post.
So many parents are uncertain about the story they want to tell their kids about Santa. They don’t know how to approach it or how to answer their child’s questions.
How we talk to our children about Santa can be a sensitive, often complex, subject. Drawing from my personal experience and my expertise as a child therapist, this post shares insights and strategies to help parents navigate discussions about Santa in ways that align with their family values while also teaching respect for differing perspectives.
Our Santa Story
When my daughter started asking us questions about Santa, we decided to talk about how Santa was a real man, but how he now lives on in the spirit of Christmas and in our imagination.
“There was a man named St. Nicholas who gave presents to children who needed them a long time ago. This time of year, it’s fun to think of the kindness St. Nicholas had as he shared gifts with children who needed them. People call St. Nicholas “Santa” now, and they love to imagine he is real. What do you want to imagine?”
This approach felt right for us because it meant we could remain honest while still encouraging playfulness.
Deciding Your Santa Story
We decided to tell the story of Santa in a make-believe way, but this doesn’t mean it’s the story every family needs to tell.
How you talk to your child about Santa comes down to your family values. Family values are the beliefs, attitudes, and principles each family shares. These values help guide a family’s behaviours, decisions, and ways of life.
Discussions about Santa also provide opportunities for instilling values like respect for differing beliefs. As children encounter peers who have been told different Santa stories, parents can seize these moments to teach the importance of respecting diversity of thought and tradition.
Determining Your Family Values
I encourage parents to do some personal reflection to determine their family values. Spend some time thinking about your upbringing to help you decide what you want to do with your kids. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- What personal beliefs and attitudes guide your behaviour?
- What did your family do for Santa when you were growing up?
- What traditions from your childhood align with your values?
- What traditions don’t align with your values?
Asking questions like this can help you determine your family values, the traditions you want to pass on, and the traditions you don’t want to pass on.
For example, our family values truth-telling and honesty. This value heavily influences the story we tell our children about Santa. We tell our girls that Santa is imaginary because we feel conflicted about teaching a misleading story. The story we tell them helps us talk to our girls about Santa in a way that connects to our value of truth-telling while still keeping it a fun part of the holidays for our family.
It’s important to note that there is no one right way to do Santa in your home – this is how we do it, but you don’t have to agree with our belief. You determine your family values, and you get to decide what story you tell.
The “Spirit of Santa” Story
If you’re like me and want a story that’s make-believe, here are two ways I might truthfully explain the story of Santa while preserving the magic.
“We believe Santa is a spirit of happiness and kindness. Santa isn’t one person anymore, but a kind, loving feeling that comes from being together and doing kind things for each other.”
“There was a real man named St. Nicholas who lived in a place called Turkey hundreds of years ago – he delivered toys to children at Christmas time. Today, we celebrate the spirit of St. Nicholas, who we now call Santa Claus, by giving generously at Christmas.”
The “Santa Is Real” Story
Maybe believing in Santa was a magical part of your childhood. It makes sense that you would want to pass that experience along to your kids.
You could share this story with your child like this:
“Santa Claus lives in the North Pole. Each year on Christmas Eve, he loads up his big, red sleigh and delivers the toys to every house. Even though these presents are so special, the most important thing about Santa is the excitement and kindness he spreads. That’s the real magic of Santa Claus!”
Whether you tell the “Spirit of Santa” story or the “Santa Is Real” story, I encourage you to keep reading for a few things to consider for each approach.
What to Consider When Teaching the “Spirit of Santa” Story
As your child gets older, they’ll likely encounter different beliefs or views amongst their peers. There may be kids on the bus, at school, or on the playground who believe Santa is real. You can prepare your child for these types of interactions in advance, teaching them to respect a story that may be different from their own.
Start a Conversation About Diversity
Begin by explaining that just as people have different likes, dislikes, and tastes, families can have distinct beliefs, too, especially about traditions and holidays. There are many ways people celebrate and many different stories they might believe. This diversity should be appreciated and respected as it makes the world rich and exciting.
Respecting Other People’s Stories
Teaching a child who doesn’t believe in Santa to respect the beliefs of their peers is important. Here is a script that demonstrate how parents can guide their children in these scenarios:
“Some of your friends believe that Santa lives in the North Pole and delivers gifts around the world. That’s a very special story for them, and we don’t want to take away that excitement and wonder. Each family has their own story, and that’s okay.”
One thing I do with my girls to ensure they preserve the magic for other kids is role-play tricky scenarios in advance; this can help children understand how to navigate real-life situations. Try acting out a scenario where your child has different beliefs about Santa than all of their peers. Guide your child on how to respect the friend’s belief without compromising their own.
You can use role-play to show your child what they can say when they are confronted with stories that claim Santa is real.
“In my family, we have our own way of thinking about Santa.”
“That’s an interesting story! My family talks about Santa a bit differently. Even though we have different ideas, I can tell we both really love the magic of the holiday season.”
Remember, your child learns from observing you. By demonstrating respect and open-mindedness in your interactions with people with different beliefs, you’re setting a powerful example for your child to follow.
What to Consider When Teaching the “Santa Is Real” Story
After years of working with children and their parents, I’ve recognized how sensitive this topic can be. That’s why it’s so important to consider a few factors if you teach your children that Santa is real.
Here are a few questions to consider:
- Do you plan to tell your children the truth about Santa? If so, when?
- How will you respond if your child comes to you questioning the Santa story?
- If your child discovers that Santa isn’t real, how will you respond?
- How can you preserve or repair the relationship if a child feels betrayed to discover Santa isn’t real?
What to Avoid
I struggle with the idea of a real Santa story because it’s often used to manipulate kids to behave. Regardless of what story you choose to tell, you should avoid the following:
- Naughty and nice language.
- The notion that Santa brings big, expensive gifts.
- Using statements like: “Santa won’t bring you gifts if…”
Instead, focus on the Santa story as a way to create traditions of togetherness.
Plan How You’ll Tell the Truth
If you choose to teach your kids that Santa is real, it’s important to plan how and when you will tell the truth.
Some parents will follow their child’s lead and wait for their questions before opening up the conversation. Other families will choose to tell the story when they feel their child is developmentally mature enough to understand.
You’ll also want a plan for talking to your child about the truth if they hear it from a friend or movie before they hear it from you.
Kids are naturally curious, so it’s likely that they will come to you with questions about Santa. Consider what types of questions they might ask so you can thoughtfully plan answers that work for your unique attitudes and beliefs.
Here are some examples of questions you might anticipate:
- “How does Santa deliver gifts to our house if we don’t have a chimney?”
- “How do reindeer fly if they don’t have wings?”
- “How does Santa get to everyone’s house in one night?”
When your child comes to you with questions, you can start by responding with curiosity. Rather than rush to give them answers, allow them to imagine what the answer could be: “Hmmm, I wonder… what do you think?”
How to Respond to Their Emotions
If you choose to tell your kids that Santa is real, anticipate big feelings when they discover the truth. I’ve heard from so many parents how confused, angry, and betrayed they felt when they learned Santa wasn’t real. For some, it broke some of the trust they had with their parents.
Respond to these emotions by validating their feelings and helping them understand it’s normal to feel that way when confronted with differing views.
“You’re really confused about Santa. On the one hand, you believe he is real, and on the other hand, your friends at school are saying he’s make-believe.”
Navigating the delicate balance of keeping the magic of Santa alive while answering the inevitable questions and emotions that arise as children grow older can be a challenge for parents. It’s natural for kids to hear conflicting information from peers, and the revelation that Santa may not be as tangible as they once believed can be disheartening. This is why it’s important to reflect on your responses to your child’s questions and emotions.
Talking to children about Santa can be complex, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Santa can be part of the holiday magic whether you use the “Santa Is Real” story or the “Spirit of Santa” story. The key is aligning your story with your family values and traditions while fostering respect for differing perspectives. Ultimately, Santa should bring families together and help create beautiful family traditions.
- Decide on your Santa story: Base the story you tell your children about Santa on your family values, traditions, and beliefs.
- Teaching values through Santa stories: Use your chosen Santa story to instill values like respect for differing beliefs, as well as foster the spirit of kindness and generosity.
- Consider different approaches: You can share the “Spirit of Santa” story for a more make-believe experience or the “Santa Is Real” story for a more magical childhood experience.
- Navigating differences among peers: Teach your child about diversity and respecting others’ beliefs and stories related to Santa Claus. Role-playing scenarios can help with this.
- Preparing for questions: Anticipate the questions your child might ask and consider how to respond with age-appropriate, thoughtful answers.
- Responding with empathy: Be prepared to listen and empathize when your child comes to you with big feelings or questions about Santa Claus, regardless of the story you’ve chosen.
- Focusing on togetherness: Regardless of the story you tell, emphasize the importance of family, togetherness, and kindness during the holiday season. Avoid language or threats that are manipulative or materialistic.