Parents answer differently children's questions about Santa

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

December 21, 1990|By Donna Peremes

For Ward Smith, reports of the non-existence of a certain jolly, red-cheeked cultural icon are greatly exaggerated.

"I'm not entirely convinced that he's not true," says the 38-year-old Baltimorean. "I kind of believe 'Miracle on 34th Street' is the real story."

While that may be true for Mr. Smith, there will no doubt come a time when his 3 1/2 -year-old daughter, Claire, hears a different story from her peers. What will he do then?

"I'm going to lie and deny," says this collector of antique toys and Lionel trains.

Although it hasn't yet become an issue in Mr. Smith's life, he, like most parents, will eventually be confronted with his child's transition from the foggy, fantastical world of believing in Santa to clear-headed considerations of reality.

Yes, it's quite horrible for all involved, but rest assured: Whatever you choose to tell your children about Santa -- whether you hope to preserve the fantasy or play the straight shooter -- doesn't matter one fig. Not even one little figgy pudding. Because children are going to believe whatever they need to and want to at their age.

"Children are going to believe what suits their level of development," says Dr. Louise Bates Ames, a child specialist at the Gesell Institute of Human Development in New Haven, Conn.

Or, as Marguerite Kelly, a syndicated columnist and author of "The Mother's Almanac," puts it, "Children always believe in the tooth fairy until they've lost their last tooth."

She offers the following example.

"One of my kids was baby-sitting once, and right before the mother and father went out, they told her not to bother to tell the child stories about Santa Claus, because he had had all that explained to him already. Well, no sooner was the door closed than the little boy said to my daughter, 'You know, my parents pretend they don't believe, but I know better,' " she laughs.

As for parents who persist in making a big production of believing in Santa Claus after the child has given it up, well, the child is likely to find Mom and Dad quite humorous in their earnest insistence.

"It begins to present a bit of quaintness in the child's sense of the parent's reality," explains Dr. Jerome Singer of the Yale University Department of Psychology.

As a general guideline, the ages of 6 and 7 are when logistical questions begin to crop up. "A 6-year-old might say, 'Well, how could one person get all of those things?' " Dr. Ames says. "You don't have to tell them how; you can just say, 'Well, how d'you suppose?' "

Even at 7, she says, children might say, "I don't think there's really a Santa Claus," but secretly they think there might be, so they leave out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.

Most experts agree, though, that there is no "normal" cut-off age. Ms. Kelly had to have the news broken to her by a fifth-grade teacher years ago, and she's certain that she is none the worse for it. "I was one of the last believers," she says.

Until the time when the child accepts the facts, he or she may try out different versions of the myth, sliding along a spectrum from belief to non-belief.

Claire, for example, may be on the way to piercing the Santa story, even at her young age. "She's already wondering when she's going to see a girl Santa Claus," Mr. Smith laughs. He'll be sorry when the gig is finally up, he says, explaining, "I think it adds a lot for me personally."

A completely opposite approach is that of Baltimore resident Pete Dwyer, father of 10-year-old Liza, who is in the know, and 5-year-old Will, who's still unsure about Santa. Mr. Dwyer didn't want to be in a position where his word would not be trusted later on, so he made his own position on Santa clear from the beginning.

"I always told Liza right from the start that it was a fun thing to believe in, but that I didn't. I said she could choose to believe what she wanted to, but that I didn't believe."

His wife, on the other hand, says she believes, so "we had a sort of balance in the family," he says.

Liza handled this by vacillating between knowing and not-knowing for a while. "When Liza was 4, she would say, 'I know there's no Santa,' but a while later, would be believing again. Then, one year, it was, 'Hey, where did all these presents come from?' " he says.

With Will, though, the process might be a bit different, Mr. Dwyer feels, because of his son's temperament. "He is very passionate and emphatic and believes things that he believes stubbornly and with all his heart," he says.

Terry Weller, a mother of three from Baltimore, has an approach that lies somewhere between the fantastic world of Mr. Smith and Mr. Dwyer's down-to-earth approach.

"I have the feeling that it's important when children ask that parents are truthful, because the next major phenomenon is the issue of the facts of life," she says. And it's imperative that children trust the parent's information on that account, she feels.

But she can't bring herself to lay it on the line, either, so she skirts the issue with her 6-year-old daughter Caroline, just as she did with her two older children.

"My daughter has asked me," she says. "I can't say the words. My response is I believe in the spirit of Christmas, in the spirit of giving, in the magic of Christmas."

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