I am Ryan Swanson, author of *The Santa Talk*. For 7 years, I interviewed parents, kids, ex-kids, teachers, and PhDs about how kids find out about Santa and how parents handled it. AMA!
In the fall of 2006, my older brother called me from Minnesota to say that my then-seven-year-old niece/goddaughter had started to ask him serious questions about Santa. "How's he get everywhere in 1 night?" "But we don't have a chimney...?" Etc. I told him to look for a book. He said he'd done that and there were none. I spent the next 7 years interviewing adults, kids, and experts about their experiences with the moment kids learn the truth about Santa and how parents handled it. From their stories, I wrote The Santa Talk.
PROOF- There is a special blog regarding today's AMA at the book's site: http://thesantatalk.com/blog/
Edit: Thank you for your questions. Merry Christmas! I am typed-out but will try to check back soon.
I think the most bizarre/fun stories were from the people who found out but, for various reasons, didn't reveal that they knew.
I was one of those! I thought that if my parents found out that I knew, it meant that I wouldn't get as many presents anymore.
What birth order were you?
I was an only child. I'm not sure I could have kept it up for as long if I'd had siblings asking lots of questions.
You're not alone. One of my favorite stories was from a woman who was in that position. She felt a lot of pressure to keep the presents coming! But she also says that she loves Christmas today, loves the tradition of Santa Claus, and recreates alot of same thing today. I hope that it wasn't ruined for you
FYI: born in 1987
When I was young, I told my parents that "I figured out how Santa watches everyone. Cameras. He has cameras everywhere." They let me believe this for awhile until I started taking apart random electronics in the house looking for them. They told me soon after.
What's the oldest you've heard a kid being before they found out?
Edit: Also, any relation to Ron? That would make your advice one thousand times more reliable.
Haha! No relation to Ron. It's usually between the ages of 4-10. The oldest who genuinely reported believing was nine.
Did you talk to anyone who just told their kids right from the start that Santa wasn't real? There has to be some people who just don't want to lie to their kids.
Absolutely. Some for religious reasons, others because they felt it was the right thing to do.
What effect did it have on the children to find out what they believed and had been told weren't true? Did it have good/bad influence on them and how did it affect the parent-child relationship, if at all?
Way more often than not, the kids' responses were a reflection of the parent-child relationship. I never once heard anyone say, "I loved my parents, they were generous and kind and hard-working, and then the Santa talk ruined it." Most often, the effect was the intended one. When it went badly, it was many times a hurt child with a strained relationship finding this as a moment to lash out a suddenly vulnerable parent.
Is there usually the cascade effect or Sixth Sense realization when Santa is uncovered with regard to all other magical beings like the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc?
Yeah, that was what I heard from people. It all sort of came into focus. There were a few that learned the truth but weren't ready to give him up. They were eager to pretend it didn't apply to teeth.
What was the oldest child you found who still genuinely believed in Santa? I have heard accounts of parents who did such a good job 'fooling' their kids that they believed into their mid/late teens.
I didn't encounter anybody like that, exactly. I met a few who were pretending to believe into their teens. One left out milk and cookies for Santa as a freshmen in high school. He was doing it because he wanted to keep his older brothers and sisters coming home from college, keep Santa coming. I have also heard some stories about parents going to great lengths -- i.e. setting up a video camera with "magical" edits. The cool thing about the holidays is that it's ours. We get to pass down a tradition and if parents want to make the extended illusion a part of that, more power to them. But it doesn't mean that their kids will appreciate it or that it'll be repeated. I found that people repeated the traditions that meshed with their partner's and that were attractive to them, not forced.
How did you or do you plan to handle the talk yourself?
Amazing username;) I plan on reacting--and trying to be decent the other days of the year. Parents can plan and plan and plan but it rarely lines up with when the truth finds kids. And, of course, it depends on the kid. Some older kids are guardians to their younger sibs and need to be released from any misunderstanding about what their duties are at a certain point. Some oldest sibs bear the burden of keeping Santa alive for their brothers and sisters. Some youngest find themselves in the same situation with their parents. If my kids ask and they are old enough to seek out the answer somewhere else, I want to be a part of something that'll make a lasting memory for both of us. I'll start by explaining what Christmas means to us -- if I've been decent the other 364 days of the year, they'll already know.
Do you think the disappointment kids face when they realise Santa is not real may have to do more with the materialistic culture in today's modern world and less with the actual fantasy of Santa. Essentially, that the reason they are so disappointed is because they realise that their presents are not special, unique or magically touched by some mystical entity?
That's interesting. Maybe a little above my pay grade but kids did this thing when I asked them about Santa where they'd toss in a word or a description or an explanation that was off the regular script. They'd say, "He's fat, wears a red suit, white beard, etc....and he knows what I want." or (as one girl said) "...and he's clean!" They were giving Santa the best traits of their own parents. When I was six, I didn't care about material culture, but I definitely cared that my parents didn't have much money. So, when the man in the red suit faded away, I was left with whatever my extra adjectives had been. I was left with ...he loves me. Which is pretty awesome but I also (selfishly) worried that we didn't have unlimited resources like Santa. Magic is a pretty great one, too, not to get too hokey. If parents aren't so great and it's just been a story, I think those kids are bummed for sure. The mystical element is a big deal tho. I've read studies where pretend play helped kids deal with emotions http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/the_kids/2012/12/the_santa_lie_is_the_big_christmas_con_hurting_our_kids.html
Did you find any parents who did not tell their kids about Santa? If so what was their reasoning?
There seems to be a group -- a shrinking group -- of parents who have just resolved not to be the ones to tell their kids. One of the most important interviews I did was with a single dad who said he felt like a fool when his mom told him and he didn't want to be the one to make his kids feel like that. In this guy's case, he loved his kids, loved the holiday. Based on the stories of other people in his shoes, his kids will sense his intentions.
I have a different problem here, but in the same theme.
My oldest kid, my daughter, is just turning 3 and starting to really get into the holiday spirit this year. She is starting to understand the stories we tell about traditions, customs, etc. behind thanksgiving, halloween, etc.
So halloween was easy, most people dont tell their children that ghosts and ghouls are real.
But this pretend Santa Guy ! I'm supposed to lie to my kid on this one.
So I have been extremely quiet and I caught myself totally avoiding it by saying absolutely nothing any time Santa came up this month....... I am not too keen on telling her about Santa because obviously its a complete bunch of BS, and I get totally uncomfortable about lying to her, even when its a story EVERYONE else is following along with.
Do you have any evidence that shows if there are any problems if you outright tell a 3 year old that "Many people get excited about this pretend guy we call Santa, here is the story, and he is not real but some children think he is..."
I am concerned to cause problems when she is in school where she tells all the kids her mommy and daddy say that Santa is fake, but I figure shes already going to get some of this anyway due to meeting kids who believe in God. She will most definitely get the agnostic point of view while getting her religious education. (I will probably explain 'Pascals Wager' to her in case she feels the need to search for comfort and wants to explore any forms of theism as she grows up.)
Looking for a little perspective on this, as I know its not a big deal at all.
After all, I was told Santa was real, and then found out like every other kid, and turned out fine... I just have trouble telling lies to anybody, including my children.
I interviewed a woman who had some bad feelings about Santa. The notion of Santa Claus was mixed up with the religion of her youth and an abusive childhood. When she got married, she was determined to not celebrate with a Santa. Her husband was okay with that, despite having grown up in a decidedly pro-Santa house. She explained to her children that Santa is a game that some of their friends play and they believe in it and it has meaning for them. Her Santa talk became about tolerance. It was a great teaching tool in that way. You're obviously thoughtful and take the time to explain things. It could be something similar for you. And you're so right--the stakes here are so low. But, it's a conversation that leads to other things about family and beliefs.
I live in America. I grew up not celebrating Christmas for religious purposes, but dabble in a few here and there now. I do remember a year where we celebrated, when I was 5; I think it was more to please my dad. I always knew there was no santa, and don't think I especially ever felt left out. My parents bought us things through-out the year. Yes, there was a slight sting upon returning to school and not having a long list of new things to tell people about, but I didn't hate my parents. My question is if it's better or worse to have your child believe/not believe in santa? I have a two year old, and decided to not tell him santa is real, but I really want to show him the many stories of santa in different countries. I've gotten into some heated debates with friends over this. I understand it's all up to us as parents, in the end. Is there any way for a holiday novice to bring the magic of the season to their kid without all the stories?
I don't know about better or worse ways to do it. I didn't hear any single consistent "right" way. If you were raised one way and love underscores the holiday and it makes you happy, that means more than all the stories. If you're looking for new stories, just a quick scan of wikipedia or A Brief History of Santa on youtube will give you some ideas about what's out there.
Whats the strangest way you've heard that a kid found out there isn't a real Santa?
sorry, dinga- the response above was meant for your question.
I'm an expert in just about nothing, but I've found that my happiness is always in reverse proportion to my expectations.
That and not to take myself too seriously. It's a terrible habit.
Do you believe that the story of Santa Claus is harder for children to believe today or easier? The availability of the internet and some children being able to have a less restricted internet experience may make it easier to discover the truth in these great stories. I feel like an imagination is such a great gift to have as a child.
You also pointed out that some parents edited videos for their children to create some magic of their own with technology, possibly making it easier for the child to believe.
I think it's what parents make it. Easier to find the truth--no doubt. When I asked one six-year-old to describe Santa, she looked me square in the eyes and told me, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Google it. That's what I did."
The availability of information isn't a bad thing. I think it's easy for parents who spend so much time and effort to see a child's discovery as inconvenient but, under most circumstances, parents reward this type of curiosity. Being confronted is an opportunity to make a memory, share a story. And it should be stated that almost all discoveries come with some tears.
If you want them to trust your judgment, DON'T LIE TO YOUR CHILDREN!
Thank you for the comment. That's definitely a position that some of the parents I spoke with held. I found that many of the kids whose parents took this approach loved the holidays and acted in the same way (or plan to) with their kids. There is ample evidence to suggest that the make believe of it all isn't harmful either and is, in fact, good for emotional development and does not affect a child's trust in his/her parent (see link above, for starters). In most cases, concerned parents were passing on something special, no matter how they did it, by virtue of simply being concerned.
Does the Santa Talk vary by religious affiliation? For example, if parents want their children to believe in a god, how does this affect how they talk to them about Santa?
Absolutely. Some Christian denominations prohibit or strongly suggest their congregants not celebrate with a Santa. Some religions see it as a pagan holdover or as a distraction from the religious focus. For others, there is no conflict. There's also the kids who tell... Kids who celebrate with different traditions were likely to be the ones who tell their friends. For a few families, a Santa talk wasn't about parents explaining to their kids what they celebrate as much as it was an opportunity to explain what the family down the block celebrates.
Did the whole elf on the shelf, business come up in your interviews? Why do you think that story got heaped in there with Santa? Was it Hallmark's,doing?
It did with a half-dozen kids I interviewed. I didn't write about it in the book because nobody who'd celebrated with an Elf on the Shelf was old enough to see it with any perspective. So many of our holiday experiences are formative and, we think, "normal" until we've got some more experiences to compare them to. But the idea that Santa knows what we're doing, sees us when we're sleeping etc., is such a time-honored and pervasive element of the holidays that there were plenty of comparable traditions, like coal and even the St. Nicholas companion, Krampus, in Alpine regions of Europe.
I was threatened with a lump of coal in my stocking. Parents have used Santa's love in a conditional way for generations because it's convenient and it was probably what was done to them. We don't have many conditional relationships as kids--our parents love us no matter what, teachers teach no matter what, our friends are our friends until they move or our parents tell us they're not. But Santa is performance based. Parents get to play the role of innocent bureaucrat--"I don't make the rules."
There was a risk in using negative reinforcement though and it goes to the other 364 days of the year. Know that there will come a day when they understand that YOU were the magic man with the sleigh and that you were also the one threatening to give them coal. In the stories that included negative reinforcement that resulted in kids who grew up and wanted to recreate Christmases past, Santa's omnipotence was like having a babysitter around and threats of negative reinforcement were used sparingly.
Will be spending Christmas this year with my 7 year old nephew.. what do you recommend I say if he starts questioning or asks if Santa is real? In previous years, I've just told him that Santa is only real if you believe in him, in a effort to keep it fun for him, but now he's a bit older, I'm not sure it'll work. Thanks!
I heard from parents who were upset when another adult shared their views on Santa with their kids. Those parents would have preferred to be the ones to share it or they weren't ready to stop playing. But at 7, if this child is still truly looking for the answer, he/she will find it and will remember the moment. You don't want to be the one to make that memory. That said, I also heard from a half-dozen ex-kids who did this after they already knew to get confirmation and/or make adults (non-parents) squirm. Run it by his/her parents and ask if they have an opinion about what you should say.
Did you discover any interesting Santa-alternatives?
Yeah, the obvious answer is none or Jesus, but there are Santa variants across the globe. American Santa is a mix of pagan Yule and European Christian traditions. One guy I met celebrates Satan Claws. It started out as a drawing that he sketched on the tags. Totally well-adjusted, successful guy, great wife, and kids. It was a sort of anti-consumerism statement. His wife says the kids just roll their eyes and the oldest has assured the younger that Satan Claws isn't real.
speaking of other Santa variants - how do kids handle moving between cultures with different Santa traditions?
I myself used to believe in Ded Moroz (gradfather frost) who delivered presents on New Years with his grand-daugher Snegurachka. Moving to the US definitely increased my doubts because the date of presents-delivery changed, no one knew about Snegurachka, and reindeer now somehow factor into things.
I didn't encounter anybody with that experience, per se. I don't know the figures you mentioned. It's fascinating to me how broadly the holiday is celebrated and the various figures involved. Each with lessons, characteristics to impart. Thanks for the comment.
So is not having a "Santa Talk" out of the ordinary or did you only speak to people after finding out they did have a "Santa Talk"?
No, not having a Santa talk was not out of the ordinary. The stories I heard suggest that there were times when they might have helped to foster some understanding. I spoke to people who had Santa talks right after discovery, didn't have Santa talks, had them years later. What I found consistently, is that the adults from families who loved celebrating the holiday, whether they ever talked about it or not, wouldn't change much about how it happened. The words meant less than the feelings.
There's experts on Santa Talk? WTF...People need to be slapped.
Haha. I wouldn't have picked this out as something to write about ten years ago. And there were no experts. I'm no expert. I just recorded people's stories and their responses and the relationships meant something to them. The real experts are parents--no one knows your family as well as you.
The strangest discovery I heard was about an 8-year-old boy who was discovering his body. About a week before Christmas, he pretended to go to bed one night but, instead, hid in the closet of a store room that he thought had a little more privacy than his bedroom. His mom came in and went straight for the closet where she found him. He started crying. She thought it was because he'd found the Christmas presents he'd been sitting on and told him the truth about Santa. Then he cried harder.
I think the most bizarre/fun stories were from the people who found out but, for various reasons, didn't reveal that they knew. The lengths that kids would go to keep Santa alive were pretty crazy
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