Mommy, is there really a Santa Claus?

Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman ... these mythical characters sprinkle our childhood memories and fill us with nostalgia. As parents, most of us weave these fantasies into tales which enrich and enhance our own little one's childhood experience. Children look eagerly forward to the magical appearance of gifts under a tree, money under a pillow, even tales of the Sandman serve their purpose in gently transitioning a child from the excitement of a day filled with activity to a restful sleep. These mythical characters add magic and excitement to our children's lives and ultimately aid in the development of our children's imagination. At some point, however, most children are ready to give up their belief in Santa or the Tooth Fairy and to hear the "truth": that these are really myths, and Mom or Dad has been playing the leading role in this fantasy play. But how do we know when that time comes?

Most children give up on the idea of Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and other myths somewhere between the ages of four and eight years. This happens because sometime around five years of age, children develop the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. With that developmental leap the child begins to ask questions about the characters we've worked so hard to develop and maintain. These questions mark the child's transition from belief to disbelief. It is a period of uncertainty marked by suspicion. So "Mommy, is there REALLY a Santa Claus?" or "Daddy, is the Tooth Fairy REAL?" may catch us by surprise, but are by no means inconsistent with normal child development.

If you're like most parents, these questions cause you to stammer and stutter, not completely sure of what to answer. After all, saying "yes" is a lie, but by saying "no," you're choosing to end a tradition that has contributed much enjoyment and excitement to your child's as well as your own life. In essence, you're caught in an awkward bind. The question to ask is whether your child is really ready to stop believing?

To assess this, it's helpful to know that just because a child asks a question, it doesn't necessarily mean that she is ready to hear the answer. Sometimes the question is asked simply because the child wants to make sure that it's o.k. to continue to believe in Santa or the Tooth Fairy. Obviously if your child isn't ready to know that these mythical characters aren't real, you shouldn't deprive her of the opportunity to keep believing. To attempt to ascertain the extent of your child's readiness, answer her question with one of your own. Simply respond "What do you think?" Your child's reply may range from "I think there is a Santa" to "No, I think you're really the Tooth Fairy." If your child answers with something along the lines of "I'm not sure," then she's probably not ready to give up believing.

Sometimes, when a child's question is answered with a question, the child will say "But I want to know the TRUTH," or "I want to know what YOU think" in a frustrated voice. When a child asks a direct question in such a serious way, it's important to acknowledge the seriousness of the statement. You might say "You sound pretty serious." Then, if the child pursues the topic, and indicates that he is serious about knowing, it's probably because he's ready to know. At this point, avoiding the answer, or dancing your way around it and not answering directly may do more harm than good. Children need open, honest communication to maintain healthy family relationships. If it's clear that your child is serious about knowing, you can say "Well, Santa (or the Tooth Fairy) is just pretend. Sometimes it's fun to make believe." You could also say "The Tooth Fairy is a way to celebrate your growing up," or "The spirit of Santa is real. It's the spirit of giving, of caring about others."

But what if you've already answered the serious question by saying "Of course there is!" What if your child was ready when they asked the last time, but you steadfastly stuck to the myth? Many parents continue to maintain the existence of Santa or the Tooth Fairy because they're not ready to let their children give them up. These characters are just as much fun for most parents as they are for the children. If you made this mistake, however, don't rush out now and try to correct it. Just listen closely for the next time your child asks, and respond appropriately at that point.