Cape Times

Busting belief in Santa

- Kristen Dunfield

CHRISTMAS is a magical time of year, especially for children. Unfortunat­ely, between elaborate Elf on the Shelf staging and fending off questions about Santa, parents are often left wondering how much of the magic depends on them.

Specifical­ly, many parents worry about whether they should encourage their children’s belief in the physical reality of Santa, about the potential impact of lying to them and what to do when their children realise they’ve been duped.

Rest assured, parents, it’s not all up to you.

In fact, the best approach involves supporting your kids while they figure it out on their own.

They will, and it won’t be as bad as you expect.

As a developmen­tal scientist, I spend most of my time researchin­g children’s trust. I’m interested in how trust develops and what happens when it’s broken.

As a proud aunt of three children under the age of four, my Santa musings have taken on a new significan­ce. But, unlike many parents, I see the developmen­t of a belief in the physical reality of Santa, and the eventual myth-busting as impressive achievemen­ts to be celebrated, not feared.

Research in the field of developmen­tal psychology suggests that such fantastica­l beliefs are not harmful, but are associated with a number of positive developmen­tal outcomes – from exercising the “counter factual reasoning skills” needed for human innovation to boosting emotional developmen­t.

While many children learn these beliefs at home, the cultural support for Santa is so strong that children in households that don’t actively endorse the myth still sometimes believe.

Yet, despite Santa’s impressive marketing strategy, most children will abandon their belief by the age of eight.

Though many parents fear this transition, it’s an inevitable part of growing up.

With age, a child’s thinking develops to the point where they start to notice Santa does magical things that physical objects can’t.

This newfound knowledge is evident in the types of questions children are asking.

Younger children are often interested in general details about Santa, like: “Where does Santa live?” Older children are more likely to hone in on Santa’s extraordin­ary abilities: “How does Santa get around the whole world in a single night?”

Recognisin­g these challengin­g questions for what they are – cognitive developmen­t in action – may free some parents from the burden of belief. – The Conversati­on

Dunfield is assistant professor of psychology at Concordia University

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