I still remember the moment my daughter asked whether or not Santa Claus was real for the first time. She was 8 and I was tucking her in for bed one mid-November night.
At that time, many of her friends still “believed.” But the questions kept coming – and by the next school year, she was having some particularly intense conversations about the topic on the bus.
There is no perfect age to disclose the true secret of Santa. But a story similar to our family’s tends to be the experience for many, with questions starting sometime between 2nd and 3rd grade (and occasionally earlier if the child has older siblings).
Here’s how I coach the families that I work with in clinic who ask for advice on how to tell their children the truth about Santa – and the 3-part strategy that worked in our family:
Practice what you’re going to say.
I suggest starting off discussing the wonderful magic of Santa. He’s kind. He loves to be generous. And he’s one of the reasons behind us spending time with our family during the holidays – baking cookies, decorating the house and tree and even visiting him and his elves at the mall.
“Remember all of the special memories this magic has made for you as a younger child?”, you can say.
Then comes the transition into talking about how there is magic to the holiday season as a whole – and that really, the magic of Santa is carried out by a large team of helpers. For our family, as I told my daughter, these helpers include me and her dad, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, our neighbors, the babysitter and even her teacher and principal. I shared with her that this entire team of grown-ups and older children work hard to keep the secret of the magic of Santa. It is our job to make sure the magic is real for younger children. And now that she is old enough, I could tell her the wonderful news that she gets to be a member of the secret-keeper helper team.
“We need you to help the younger children around you to still believe. Can you help us keep the magic alive for them?” are the words I used.
Pick a special place to deliver the news.
I was nervous, naturally, but I decided to have the conversation with my daughter while we were decorating our home’s Christmas tree. Other families I’ve worked with have chosen to take their child out for breakfast, or deliver the news during an outing at their child’s favorite park. Wherever you choose, I do recommend a 1:1 or 2:1 conversation with your child. It’s important that you give your child your full, undivided attention for this.
Be prepared for tears to come from both you and your child. (But be assured that this talk will ultimately bond the two of you more tightly.)
When I shared the true secret of Santa with my daughter, she did get upset and cry. And of course that made me worry if I had crushed her little heart. Know, though, that getting sad or angry initially is normal.
The best way to handle it? Let your child “cool off.”
My daughter went to her room to be by herself for a little bit. (And while she was in there, I too felt sad and mourned the fact that she was getting older and that this was another marker of growing up.) But, then, she came back to me to finish decorating the tree we had started. We talked through her questions, and by the time we topped the tree with its star, she was ready to be a member of the secret-keeping team. We bonded over working together to help all the younger kids.
I’ve heard people say that when parents confirm the existence of Santa (or the Stork, Tooth Fairy or Easter Bunny) to their children, they run the risk of undermining their children’s trust. But in my professional opinion, there will be no problems with trust if you are generally honest and forthcoming with your child, as appropriate.
If a family wants to celebrate the holiday season with the magic of Santa Claus, I believe they absolutely should. There is so much family connection and collaboration that comes with keeping the magic alive. The holiday traditions that come with the magic encourage children to use their imaginations and develop their creativity. And the Santa story can aid in teaching important values to your child, too. Your child will learn about hope as well as the joy that comes from giving to others. And I can attest, as a parent, you’ll benefit from seeing your child incredibly happy, excited and full of wonder.