Is Santa real? Why an honest answer won't kill Christmas magic

Media release

18 December 2019

It's the dreaded question many a frazzled parent has shut down in fear of ruining Christmas for their kids – "is Santa real?"

The Santa secret can be tricky terrain for parents to navigate, but according to Deakin School of Psychology senior lecturer Dr Elizabeth Westrupp it's possible to create a sense of Christmas magic and ritual without needing to stray too far from the truth.

"Ultimately, it's a very personal choice for families, but there are options for managing Christmas in a way that can suit everyone without spoiling the fun," Dr Westrupp said.

"For many families, Christmas represents a huge amount of fun, enchantment and ceremony, and parents may go to a lot of effort to create a magical experience for their children, telling stories about Santa Claus, putting out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and even carrots for his reindeer."

An expert in child development and parenting, Dr Westrupp said increasing numbers of parents are wondering if it's OK to tell white lies to their children about Santa – and the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, for that matter.

"Some parents feel uncomfortable with the idea of misleading their children, given that they otherwise ask for honesty in the family," she said.

"Other parents talk about how difficult it is to keep the secret for younger children when older children in the family find out that Santa isn't real."

Dr Westrupp said there were a number of options parents could take when navigating the tricky space, including using the revelation as an important teaching experience.

"If parents want their children to believe in Santa, they can 'recruit' older children in on the secret," she said.

"Older kids are more likely to support the secret if they feel important and part of something special. It's possible to turn the occasion of them finding out the truth into a coming-of-age tradition, where they learn Santa is really an ideal of charity and selfless giving, rather than a person.

"On the other hand, if parents prefer to be honest with their child from the beginning, it's still possible to create all the magic and ritual.

"Many people and cultures use fairy-tales or myths as a part of storytelling to bring families together around special events, and we can treat Christmas the same way."

Dr Westrupp said research suggests children can struggle when their understanding of the world is revealed to be different from the truth. In the case of Christmas stories, older children learning that Santa isn't real can feel confused, hurt and upset. The older a child is when they find out, the greater the chance of them finding the truth difficult to accept.

"When children have questions about something that doesn't make sense to them, a helpful approach is for parents to answer in a straight-forward and age-appropriate way – that is, to be guided by their child," Dr Westrupp said.

"Here's a good rule of thumb - if a child is asking the question, they're ready to hear the answer. When children learn that their parents will answer their questions as best they can, this will strengthen the bond between them by building trust."

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