Editorial: Yes, Virginia’s parents, it’s OK for kids to believe in Santa

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.

— Francis Pharcellus Church, editorial writer for The New York Sun, in response to Virginia O’Hanlon, 8, asking if Santa Claus was real

You’ve likely heard it — perhaps in a post on social media or in conversation with friends who are parents of young children — what should they tell their kids about Santa Claus? How long should they keep the story going? When should they tell them the “truth”? Should they even allow their kids to believe in jolly old St. Nicholas in the first place?

It doesn’t help that adults are having to grapple with their own anxieties about what they can believe and how they can figure out what’s true following the flood of fake news on Facebook and other social media during the recent election campaign.

But how children relate to the Santa Claus story and their evolving understanding of it might help adults regain their footing on the things in which they believe.

We may be underestimating how well children handle the task of understanding the truth behind Santa Claus, according to a recent commentary by Jacqueline D. Woolley, professor and Department of Psychology chair at the University of Texas at Austin, in a recent article on the website, The Conversation.

Even with the fantastic fairy tale aspects of Santa’s story, Woolley found that kids believe it; 83 percent of five-year-olds she surveyed think Santa Claus is real. And they believe this because it’s what they’re told and kids naturally believe adults, particularly their parents. And parents and other adults build on that belief, whether it’s taking a bite out of a cookie left on a plate for Santa or the daily movement of an Elf on the Shelf.

Yet children, Woolley said, are rational, critical thinkers who use the same tools to decide what to believe that adults do: They consider the context of the information; they measure new information against what they already know; and they evaluate the expertise of the source of the information.

Parents don’t need to worry that they’re hurting their kids by engaging in the Santa myth or that it could lead to parental mistrust. She cites a 1994 study in the journal Cognitive Development that children generally discover the truth on their own, typically around seven years of age, and responded to the truth positively.

In fact, kids’ gradual understanding about Santa may give them an opportunity to develop the skills the need to discern fact from fiction.

The Sun’s Francis Church understood how to answer Virginia’s question. He didn’t lie to her; instead he told her what was real about Santa, what we all can believe in: love, generosity, faith, poetry and joy.

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