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The Science Behind Santa

Why Young Children Believe in the Jolly Old Elf

When I was little, one of my older brothers told my older sister there was no Santa Claus. When she totally (and loudly) freaked out, he freaked out, too, and ran into the woods behind our house. While I don’t recall exactly what age either of them was when this happened, I’m pretty sure my sister was over age ten. Which is a relief now that I’ve read the 2017 Science News article “The Science Behind Kids’ Belief in Santa” by Laura Sanders, Ph.D.

According to Sanders’s research into why young children have no trouble believing in Santa despite seemingly obvious holes in the whole Santa story, kids’ thinking tends to shift around age eight to a “concrete operational stage” that leads them to question exactly how things work. Until then, though, they get to enjoy what many of us recall fondly as the wide-eyed wonder of belief in things that might not exactly make sense but allow us to believe, unconditionally, that anything is possible.

After sharing some stories about her young children related to Santa sightings and their own wide-eyed wonder with regard to St. Nick, Sanders also shares common concerns among parents, such as feeling a tad guilty about lying to their children about Santa. She also, thank goodness, cites a study that assures parents that children are resilient and bounce back pretty quickly when they do learn the truth. I’m fairly certain it’s safe to say most children also do not grow up to resent any lies they might have been told if those lies (or myths as some prefer to call them) added some extra joy to their childhood.

While my sister may have been pretty upset at first, probably due to our brother’s imperfect delivery and/or timing, I don’t remember her suffering much from the unfortunate experience — and I shared a room with her. I do remember that the whole debacle ended my own belief in the big guy in the red suit, but then my mom promised I could stay up Christmas Eve to help decorate the tree and put all the presents out, something Santa always did at our house.

My own kids didn’t grow up with Santa decorating the tree every Christmas Eve, but presents didn’t go under the tree until they’d gone to bed. I discovered a couple years ago, when our youngest was sixteen, that she had strong feelings about this when I thought it would look nice to put a few gifts under the tree early on Christmas Eve. She just now told me it’s because seeing presents under the tree before Christmas morning reminded her that her childhood was over, that (I’m paraphrasing here, she doesn’t mind at all, trust me) Santa indeed didn’t exist, along with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, which meant simply believing in something didn’t always make it real.

To those who’ve ever lost faith in anything they once considered a breathtaking, even magical, part of their lives, this insight can hit painfully close to home. Maybe that’s why we love seeing young children light up when they come across something that defies reason and makes them giddy with excitement even though we know it will be explained away someday, somehow, when they’re older. At least for now such a special thing can make the world seem full of all that is wondrous and good — to us as well as them.

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Bylines in Publishers Weekly, the Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, others. One Sister’s Song (novel). Not Nearly Everything You Need to Know About Writing (ebook).

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