The Santa Claus story: Beloved tradition or damaging lie?

Jolly Old Saint Nick is perhaps the most beloved icon of the Christmas holidays. But an essay recently published in the medical journal Lancet Psychiatry questions what we should be telling our kids about Santa Claus.

Essay published in medical journal suggest we need to be honest about what we're telling our kids

'Tis the season when Santa Claus is frequently on the minds of kids young and old. (Woohae Cho/AFP/Getty Images)

If you're reading this, you likely know the truth about Father Christmas. If not, you better stop here.

'Tis the season for millions of parents to convince their kids that Santa Claus is real. But this myth may ultimately be damaging, according to psychologist Christopher Boyle and mental health researcher Kathy McKay.

In a recent essay published in the Lancet Psychiatry, they say the Santa myth may undermine a child's trust in their parents.

"All children will eventually find out they've been consistently lied to for years, and this might make them wonder what other lies they've been told," the researchers write.

The essay is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it's inspired by true events of Christmas trauma. 

Parents often encourage children to write to jolly old Saint Nick, who, of course, lives at the North Pole. (CBC)

In an interview, Boyle, of the University of Exeter, says he was "devastated" when he found out Santa Claus wasn't real. But it was his mother who had tears streaming down her face as she revealed the truth. 

Why was his mother so upset? Boyle suggests parents aren't just trying to create a magical experience for their children — but also for themselves.

"Many people may yearn for a time when imagination was accepted and encouraged, which may not be the case in adult life," he told CBC News.

The essay openly asks if it's right to make children believe in Father Christmas and whether lying about it will affect children in ways that aren't being considered.

Advice for parents

The authors accept that lying to children may sometimes be right and may even breed healthy skeptics. 

So what should a parent do when their child simply asks: Is Santa Claus real?

Dr. Rachel Mitchell, a child and youth psychiatrist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, says the myth of Santa can seriously affect certain children who don't feel secure or have difficulty with the concept of trust. 

But, Mitchell adds, "most kids are far more resilient than we give them credit for."

Research on the Santa myth is limited, she says, but generally shows that parents have a harder time with their kids learning the truth than the children themselves.

"Most people remember when they figured out that Santa Claus wasn't real. It is a meaningful and monumental moment."

What should a parent do if their child asks them whether Santa is real? It depends on the child's personality, but one youth psychiatrist says kids are 'far more resilient' than we give them credit for. (Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

It's also important for parents to know their child and gauge what he or she can handle, she says. 

"If you think they're going to have a hard time with it, then perhaps it's better to perpetuate the myth and tell them at a time when you think that they're ready," Mitchell says. "Whereas in other situations, you can ask them what they think and have an open discussion."

And, she adds, disappointment can be an opportunity for growth, helping kids learn how to manage intense emotions.

'I didn't want to be that parent'

Adam Blinov says he "panicked a little" when his almost-eight-year-old son asked if Santa was real.

"I didn't say Santa's not real. But then I didn't really confirm he was a real person."

Blinov also didn't want to ruin the myth for other kids in his son's class. "I didn't want to be that parent."

Christopher Boyle is a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Exeter in the U.K. (Submitted)
And he believes life becomes a bit more bland for everyone once the truth is out in the open. But he admits that "it does feel weird having them write letters and leave cookies for an imaginary person."

Ultimately, Mitchell says it's important for parents to keep their own emotions, values and ideas — imaginary or otherwise — in check.

So has the essay's author told his own children the truth about Santa Claus? Boyle laughs and says he doesn't yet have children. And he admits he isn't sure what he'd do. 

But perhaps his answer can be found in the paper's conclusion:

"Might it be the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation of something better, something to believe in, something to hope for in the future or to return to a long-lost childhood a long time ago."


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