Santa Claus: Naughty or Nice? (cont.)

"Always tell the truth as you know it. That doesn't mean being explicit beyond what a child wants to know," says Kuchenbecker. To prove her point, she shares a story of a little girl who asks her mother what "sex" is. The flustered parent tries her best to explain the meaning of the word to her daughter, but at the end of the long lecture, the girl says she simply wanted to know what the difference was between males and females.

Children are apparently good at picking up what they need to know at the appropriate time. When they are ready to learn, it's a good idea for parents to be available as a resource.

Parents who strongly believe that they are betraying their children's trust by sharing the Santa Claus tale probably do not need to tell them the story, says Robert Feldman, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has conducted extensive research on lying and deception.

Keep in mind, though, that in the overall scale of deception, propagating the Santa myth is no worse than saying things like "You look terrific," or "You haven't gained weight," or "What a great dress," says Feldman, noting that people generally use lies as a social crutch.

"We actually teach our kids that deception is acceptable," says Feldman. For example, he says parents often ask their children to pretend they like gifts from relatives to spare the feelings of family members.

Children are also resilient and can usually overcome any negative feelings related to discovering the real Santa. "It's no worse than telling them about the three bears, or Goldilocks, or Cinderella, or anything else. It's a story and when they get older, they understand that it was only a fairy tale," says George Cohen, MD, FAAP, clinical professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Children's Fantasy World

Very young children live in an imaginary world, and that world is reality for them. "Little kids think there actually might be a monster in their closet or a dragon under their bed," says Douglas Kramer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. "It seems real to them, so it's got to be real."

At ages 1 through 4, children can comprehend tangible things such as sleigh, reindeer, and Santa Claus as a real person, Kramer explains. These kids cannot yet grasp abstract concepts.

At 4 to 6 years old, Kramer says children may begin questioning whether Santa Claus is a real person. It is not until kids are about 6 to 8 that they may be ready to understand that Santa Claus is real, but not in a concrete sense. Their ability to think abstractly begins developing at this time and continues on until they are about 14 years old.

In all ages, a good imagination is important, but it's crucial for very young children. They simply cannot do without a good fantasy life, says Carolyn Saarni, PhD, a developmental psychologist and professor of counseling at Sonoma State University in California.

"Play is central to cognitive development," says Saarni. "You can master the world through your ability to manipulate things in fantasy. Play allows you to kind of practice what you would do in the real world."

A little girl who is playing with a doll, for instance, may try to imitate her mother's nurturing ways. In her pretend world, she is practicing what she would do in certain situations.

Tasha Howe, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., says parents can use fantasy to encourage children's critical and independent thinking. When children ask questions related to Santa Claus, such as "Is there really a Santa Claus?" or "How do reindeer fly?" she suggests encouraging little ones to come up with their own explanations.

There is no scientific research indicating the Santa tale can be helpful or harmful to kids, says Howe. So when her students who are parents ask her whether or not they should promote the Santa tale, she simply responds, "It's a personal choice. Whatever choice you make, I don't think it's going to harm your child."

Published Nov. 29, 2004.

SOURCES: Mikio. Parentsoup. Berkeley Parents Network Online. BabyCenter. Roberto. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, Winter 1994. Canadian Medical Association Journal, December 2002. Benjamin Siegel, MD, FAAP, professor of pediatrics, Boston University Medical School. Shari Kuchenbecker, PhD, a research psychologist; author, Raising Winners. Robert Feldman, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. George Cohen, MD, FAAP, clinical professor of pediatrics, George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C. Douglas Kramer, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist; associate clinical professor of psychiatry, University of Wisconsin Medical School. Carolyn Saarni, PhD, developmental psychologist; professor of counseling, Sonoma State University, California. Tasha Howe, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif.

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