As the holidays approach, Santa Claus is on the minds of many children — and many parents also, but for different reasons.
Parents wonder whether they should promote the myth of the jolly old man in the red suit and worry about what to say when their child eventually asks for the truth.
Underlying both of these questions is a larger one: Is it good for kids to believe in Santa Claus? As a developmental psychology researcher, I say yes, because there are benefits for cognitive and emotional development.
Believing in impossible beings such as Santa Claus may exercise children’s counterfactual reasoning skills.
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The kind of thinking involved in imagining how nine reindeer could fly through the sky carrying a heavy sleigh may well be the same kind of thinking required for imagining a solution to global warming or a way to cure a disease.
Thinking along the border between what is possible and what is impossible is at the root of all scientific discoveries and inventions, from airplanes to the Internet.
Believing in Santa also exercises children’s deductive reasoning abilities and their use of evidence.
But perhaps the greatest benefit to children’s cognitive and emotional development may arise from the discovery that Santa Claus is not, in fact, a real physical being.
Many parents envision a moment at which their child demands the truth, but the discovery process is often more gradual.
In fact, there is often a protracted period during which children become increasingly less sure about Santa’s existence. Toward the end of this period, children may actually look for evidence to confirm their suspicions.
This is where parents can help.
A parent who had disguised her handwriting on the presents from Santa can use her own handwriting. Or she can put a few “from Santa” presents under the tree the night before.
Once children are beginning to doubt, they become very scientific, and in some cases even set up their own experiments.
My daughter left a camera and a note next to the milk and cookies, requesting that Santa take a picture of himself and leave it for her as evidence.
In the end, children are empowered by feeling that they have figured it out by themselves.
Upon making the discovery, they become part of the adult world; they are “in on the secret” and can derive even more emotional benefit by being given a role in keeping the myth alive for their younger siblings.
Engaging with cultural myths also allows adults to vividly recall their own childhood sense of wonder and to create fun opportunities for their loved ones.
The whole family benefits. Children grow emotionally and cognitively, and parents get to spend a bit of their own time imagining the impossible.
Jacqueline Woolley chairs of the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin.