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Surprising Academic Data on What Happens When Kids Learn the Truth About Santa

Sam Howzit/Flickr

Parents fret about how their children will deal with the truth about Santa Claus—but when kids do figure it out, it’s actually more distressing for their parents.

For a 1994 paper in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, Carl Anderson and Norman Prentice, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin, recruited 52 families with elementary school-aged children and interviewed both parents and kids about the family’s experience of Santa Claus. What they found was surprising: “Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth.

Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery…While children experience distressful reactions such as sadness, disappointment and anger, the degree of such reactions are generally minimal and short-lived.” In fact, they were so unperturbed that 58 percent said they pretended to believe in Santa after realizing the truth—so as not to disappoint their parents.

How do children react to learning the truth?

“Children generally reported far greater occurrence of positive and negative feelings than did the parents…While reporting a wide range of feelings experienced, other data suggest that the intensity of feeling as recalled by the child was not excessive...Children who discovered the truth from their parents were, contrary to prediction, no more distressed than those who learned on their own.”

How do parents react to their kids’ discovery?

“Parents were asked to describe how they felt after their child found out the truth about Santa Claus. Sadness (40%) was the most frequently described parental feeling in relation to the event which symbolized the child’s continued maturation…Only 6% of parents indicated that they were happy or glad.”

How do parents try to keep the myth alive? Are their efforts effective?

“Parental attitudes clearly supported the child’s engagement in the Santa Claus myth, especially for the sense of excitement and fun (94%) as well as communality (85%) it provided...Age at discovery was significantly related to parental attitude, but not to verbal or behavioral encouragement.”

How do children discover the truth?

"In over half the instances children figured out the truth on their own (54%), were told by parents in about a third of time (33%) and in the residual cases discovered the truth through a combination of figuring the issue out and querying their parents (13%)….Closer inspection of the child interview data suggests that the ultimate realization came about through a gradual transition to disbelief rather than at a single point of demarcation. For example, in response to the question ‘Had you wondered if Santa might not be real before?’ 41 (79% of) children indicated their previous doubts."

How old are kids when they figure it out?

“Parents’ estimate of the child’s at discovery (7.2) was virtually identical with the child’s report…Children higher in IQ learned the truth about Santa at a younger age.”