Parents struggle with the idea of telling their children about Santa. Some think telling the story amounts to verifying a lie, but Charles A. Smith, K-State professor of child development and psychology, believes that is not the case.
“You are pretending along with the child,” Smith said.
In 2009, Smith did a study on Santa Claus and came to the conclusion that letting a child believe is important in that child’s development.
“Santa Claus is a loving, merry person who cares about kids so much that he wants to bring toys to kids throughout the whole world,” Smith said. “If you take Santa Claus out of the picture, you diminish that child’s sense that they are special. To be a kid, it’s nice to be liked.”
Smith said some parents can take the idea of Santa too far, though, and can even turn it into a form of child abuse.
For example, Smith has a problem with parents telling children that Santa Claus won’t bring them any presents if they do not finish their vegetables.
“If Santa Claus was real, he would not refuse to come to your child’s house if she did not eat all of her green beans,” Smith said.
Smith especially dislikes the song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” He said it undermines the message of Santa as representing caring and togetherness.
Children are going to realize that Santa does not exist and that process starts to take place between the ages of 5-7.
If a child does ask whether Santa does not exist, Smith suggested parents not respond with an answer, but with another question: What do you think?
Smith said children will not resent their parents when they realize Santa does not exist.
He acknowledges once having had one adult student who resented his father after the student found out that Santa Claus was not real.
When that adult was a child, he and his dad would go looking for Santa. The father would point to the sky and say there he is. The child would crane his neck to find Santa. The child then said his father would laugh when he could not find him.
That is why Smith is not in favor of parents having children write letters to Santa or getting their picture taken with Santa at the mall.
It emphasizes the reality of the image, Smith said.
Smith also said it could be harmful if you make Santa Claus a female. Again it would distort the image for kids.
“It’s not an issue for kids that he is male,” Smith said. “I think Mrs. Claus should be given more credit. She is left out too much. I could see Mrs. Claus riding with Santa on his sleigh. He (Santa) does come from a traditional family. Without her you would not have Santa and without the elves you would not have Santa.
Smith has been a proponent of feeding children’s imagination since has was a preschool teacher on the campus of Purdue University in the 1970s.
Back then, being a male preschool teacher was very rare.
“I was in a world of all women teachers,” Smith said.
Smith said none of the books at the school he was teaching were activating the children’s imagination.
So Smith went and bought a book of fairy tales. He told his student teachers not to read the book to any of the children unless the children asked for it.
“After a few weeks the book started to fall apart from overuse,” Smith said. “Those stories feed the child’s imagination.”
That is why Smith is equally a proponent of the Easter Bunny and the tooth fairy.
“It represents something wonderful,” Smith said.