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What to say when your kid asks if Santa is real? [Chicago Tribune :: BC-HDY-FAM-SANTA-REAL:TB]

The 1994 film "The Santa Clause" opens with Scott Calvin's (played by Tim Allen) 6-year-old son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd), relinquishing his belief in Santa Claus after an older kid told him Kris Kringle wasn't real - a sentiment echoed by his psychologist stepfather Neal (Judge Reinhold), who said Santa is more of a feeling or "state of mind" than a person.

"It seems kind of babyish to believe in that stuff," Charlie says. Yet, by the film's end, Charlie is its true hero. His unwavering belief in Old St. Nick and all the hope, cheer and magic Christmas brings after witnessing his father's transition into the Man in Red warms the heart and smashes the doubt of even the most vocal Santa detractor, Neal.

We have all heard or seen the effect of the "Santa's not real" conversation, whether it comes from another child at school, an older sibling or a parent. Kids cry, and they cry hard. They feel they've been tricked by their moms, dads and grandparents. They may ask for proof - does mom's handwriting match Santa's? Could dad have eaten all of those cookies while we were sleeping?

The Santa myth (or lie, as some bluntly refer to it as) is widely regarded as fuel for a child's imagination, creativity and a way to invoke the spirit of giving. Santa Claus should be put in the "good lie" pile, said Slate writer Melinda Wenner Moyer.

It's a fantasy that gives kids an early belief in something greater than themselves. A power for universal good, not evil. Where's the harm in that?

"Somewhere around 6 or 7 or 8, your child poses that dreaded question," writes psychologist and family counselor, Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker in "When Your Child Asks, Is Santa Real?" "It can mark the end of a certain kind of innocence for the child and an end of a fun chapter of parenting for the adults."

Jacqueline Woolley, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found, in 2006, that between ages 3 and 5, children are able to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Woolley and a colleague studied about 400 children between ages 3 and 6 who were asked to determine whether a set of new words presented to them were real or imaginary. Some words were presented in scientific terms, while others were presented in fantastical terms. For example, Woolley first said "Doctors use hercs to make medicine," then replaced the words "doctors" and "medicine" with "fairies" and "fairy dust." Woolley and her colleague found that children were more apt to believe the words represented real things in the scientific context than in the fantasy context.

"These studies provide new insight into the development of children's ability to make the fantasy-reality distinction," Woolley said. "It is clear from the studies that young children do not believe everything they hear and that they can use the context surrounding the presentation of a new entity to make inferences about the real versus fantastical nature of that entity."

In 2011, Woolley revisited the study and included belief in Santa Claus. She studied 101 children ages 5, 7 and 9 who watched video clips of adults talking about fantasy figures, which included Santa. She found that 83 percent of 5-year-olds believed, while 63 percent of 7-year-olds and only 33 percent of 9-year-olds believed, showing a steady decrease and lingering doubt over time.

Woolley believes the best way to approach the question about Santa is to give your kids the tools to come to their own conclusion.

If your child asks you, "Is Santa real?" why not present the question right back to him or her - Do you think he is? Are you starting to think he isn't? Did you hear something that has changed your mind? What does Santa mean to you?

If they're inquiring about it, they've probably been debating the pros and cons of knowing the truth for a while. Understanding where your child's doubts are coming from and building the conversation around that just may stop some tears from flowing.

There are other positive approaches to capping belief in Mr. Claus. Hartwell-Walker suggests making your child's role in the magic of the season bigger, albeit "Santa size."

"Older kids can stay up to help put some presents under the tree. Younger kids can help you label some gifts "from Santa with love" to give to relatives," she writes. "Everyone can be a 'Santa' by participating in a toy drive for needy families, by taking food to the local food pantry or by throwing coins in a Salvation Army bucket."

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