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When Should You Stop Lying to Your Kids About Santa?

We knew the day would come when our son would stop believing in Santa. But at just seven years old, we thought we had at least two or three more years. So it was a ruse awakening when, while out to dinner, Lex looked up from his chicken fingers and fries and blithely asked, "So is Santa real or what?" That question was met by stunned silence as my husband and I glanced at each other in disbelief. After all, we were still going to extreme lengths to keep up the rouse. Just days earlier we were in a panic when his Elf On the Shelf Christopher fell behind some built-in cabinetry during my husband's attempt to find a new place to perch it. It was impossible to retrieve.

Thank God for Amazon. A new one would arrive in just two days. We just needed to figure out how to explain Christopher's absence. I came up with an idea to leave a note from the elf and even hunted down parchment-like paper because it looked – well - more elf-like. We were relieved to find that it worked. The next day, Lex informed us that Christopher had to go help Santa out for a couple days, said to keep being a good boy and that he would be back in a couple days. Whew! We did it! Good parenting right?

Well, now I am beginning to wonder if we did the right thing. I'm not alone. Many parents have shared the same dilemma. "Are we taking this Santa thing too far?" lamented one mom as we chatted recently. That may be the case, according to experts.

"Between five and seven, they are really testing the waters," notes Dr. Ellen Braaten, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. "If he asks if Santa is real, I think the best way to respond is by asking, 'What do you think about Santa.' Use his response to figure out if they are ready to cross the line. He may say, 'I think Santa is real but Billy at school says he isn't.'" In that instance, she suggests explaining that different people believe different things, that Christmas is a magical time and St. Nick is a magical person. It's a way of encouraging the belief without lying outright.

However, if you field a cynical, "Come on mom, Santa isn't real," the unfettered truth may be the best approach. "You don't want to tell him he is wrong because he did get it right," recommends Dr. Sarah Vinson, an Atlantic-based forensic psychiatrist and assistant professor at Morehouse School of Medicine. "This could actually be a teaching moment. Say something along the lines of, 'Wow, you got it right. You are really growing up.'"

This issue is much more delicate when it comes to younger children. They may share this newfound truth with their peers, which can lead to tears and arguments, not to mention angry parents. Of course we shouldn't tell our children to lie, but they should be encouraged to keep it a secret or not say anything when kids are excitedly talking about Santa.

In general, the experts believe it's okay to foster the belief in the pre-kindergarten set. "Some three and four year olds are really active in make believe," explains Dr. Vinson. "To them, Ninja Turtles are real. Disney princesses are real. Santa Claus is an extension of their imaginations. They get so much joy out of believing."

It's not just the kids who get a rush from it either. Many parents want them to remain wide-eyed and amazed by Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. It's as wonderful for us to watch as it is for them to experience. "When they stop believing, it's one of the first signs our kids are moving away from us and becoming their own person," adds Braaten, also an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. "We love the magic of childhood. It's a loss for us." I must admit the thought saddens me. Inevitably he will ask why I lied when I had the chance to tell him the truth – a moment I am certainly not looking forward to. Yet when the time comes, Dr. Vinson has armed me with the perfect response: "Tell him, 'You were so happy and excited about Santa, we wanted you to have a special, magical Christmas. But you are a big boy and figured it out. We are proud of you.'"

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