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What kids understand about Santa Claus

December 13, 2017

Thalia Goldstein

Do children really think that guy dressed up in a red suit and white beard at the mall, saying “Ho, ho, ho,” is Santa Claus?

There is no harm if they do, a George Mason University professor said. In fact, a child’s eventual discovery that Santa Claus is a myth will aid in the development and reinforcement of their social abilities.

“Kids might be disappointed to find out he doesn’t exist; I’m still a little disappointed that he doesn’t exist,” said Thalia Goldstein, an assistant professor of applied developmental psychology, who directs George Mason’s Social Skills, Imagination and Theatre Lab. “But they get over it quickly.”

Goldstein bases that belief on two studies she conducted with Jacqueline Wooley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, at a Connecticut museum with a dynamic Christmas display, including Mr. and Mrs. Claus.

What they found was that 40 percent of kids, ages 3 to 10, believed the mall Santa was the real Santa. Another 40 percent believed he wasn’t the real Santa, but possessed some magical qualities. Another 15 percent thought the mall Santa communicated with the real Santa, while five percent thought the mall Santa was just some guy in a costume.

Interestingly, the more Santas children saw, the more likely they were to believe the one in front of them was real, Goldstein said.

“This is his omnipresence,” she said. “Our theory is that when you see Santa in all these different places, it is evidence he can be everywhere, that he knows when you are sleeping and knows when you are awake.”

Parental guidance can make easier a child’s realization that Santa Claus is not real, Goldstein said. For example, a parent can frame it as a secret the child now gets to keep, especially if they have younger siblings who still believe.

A parent can also explain that Santa Claus is a representation of the meaning of the holiday season: giving to the less fortunate, doing works of charity, giving presents to family and loved ones.

“This is part of becoming smart, of getting to be an adult,” Goldstein said.

So put out the cookies and milk on Christmas Eve, and keep singing those Santa songs.

“I don’t see any harm at all in your child believing,” Goldstein said. “Follow your child’s lead. If they want to be sad about [realizing Santa is not real], that’s fine. But most kids are going to be pretty proud of themselves. A small percentage are upset, but they usually get over it within a day.”

Thalia Goldstein can be reached at 703-993-6460 or tgoldste@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Damian Cristodero at 703-993-9118 or dcristod@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.