Dear Sara…

by Sara Zacuto

“Listen to Mustn’ts, child, listen to the Don’ts.
Listen to the Shouldn’ts, the Impossibles, the Won’ts.
Listen to the Never Haves, then listen close to me.
Anything can happen, child, Anything can be.”

~Shel Silverstein

This week a parent shares a timely question…


Hi Sara,

Question: What is real?

For a while, maybe a year, our now 5-year-old son has asked questions about what is real, such as:

“Are spaceships real?”

“Is Titanic real?”

“Were ghosts real in the olden times?”

Those are relatively easy questions to answer. But thrown into the mix are others, like “Is Santa real?” I don’t think there’s any kind of doubting going on, just a kind of curiosity. I don’t want to lie or say something misleading, but neither do I want to destroy the magical believing of childhood. Advice?

Yours truly, Pat


Hi Pat!

I’ll start by saying that I absolutely love this stage of childhood where every aspect of reality is being thoroughly questioned and analyzed! I suppose it’s the philosopher in me, but I adore talking with children about the nature of perception, and hearing their theories. I just generally enjoy being intellectually critical with them and deeply appreciate all the unjaded viewpoints they offer. Which, without fail, always leads to the slippery Santa conundrum!

This is one of those particularly challenging things to address because every family and every child engages differently in the Santa mythology…and it becomes impossible to provide answers that are one-size-fits-all. Your own family traditions and values are deeply at play here, as they should be.

Personally I fall in the “Santa is a character from a story but definitely not real” camp. I don’t tell my kids that he is a real person who keeps watch on their behavior, and comes down our chimney to give them presents…but we do read the stories, sing the songs, decorate the tree, exchange the gifts, eat the food, see the lights, and enjoy the brisk air and general loveliness of the season. My conversations with my oldest about Santa have actually been quite limited because I never started out saying he is real so I’ve never found myself in this predicament.

So, you say “I don’t want to lie or say something misleading, but neither do I want to destroy the magical believing of childhood”… and this is the crux of the dilemma, because those two things appear to stand in opposition to each other.

Here is what I think is key when asked these kinds of questions by children: instead of giving a simple “yes” or “no” and go from there, perhaps start to emphasize that different people believe in all kinds of different things, and the great thing is that J gets to decide what he believes in! You can even turn the question around and say “what do you believe?” when he asks.

If you follow his lead in questioning and say things like “Hmmm…is Santa real? I wonder…I know lots of people believe in him”, it puts you in a relatively neutral position. This is of course, harder to do if you’ve spent his entire life telling him with great certainty that he IS real. I find the less you say and the more you begin to listen, and prompt his thinking with questions, the easier it becomes to unveil the truth as he gets older.

Maybe J is getting a bit wise to the whole thing and expecting you to “come clean” as it were. When children enter school they start to hear from their peers about how things are done in each other’s families, and I’ve seen many heated debates taking place on the playground about the existence of Mr. Claus. I think that believing in Santa is quite harmless and I remember with great fondness leaving cookies and carrots out for him when I was small, and the anticipation surrounding waking up to get presents.

The thing that I do find completely harmful and antithetical to the season is the “Elf on the Shelf” craze that has entered the narrative, honestly. It is being marketed as a fun and magical essential “toy”, but truly it is a nefarious and coercive tactic that only aims to shame children into “behaving” because they are being spied on and reported with the threat of not getting presents. In my opinion it is completely immoral to prey upon young children’s magical thinking in the name of managing their behavior. Okay…off my soapbox.

But truly, the most sound advice I can offer is follow your heart on the matter, and don’t do things that feel “off.” If you don’t feel comfortable maintaining the Santa story, then ease out of it and present J with the “secret” about what grown ups do and ask him to guard it with you when younger children, or others who believe are around. Or if you sense that he is not ready to let go of the fantasy yet, enjoy the fleeting time where he is fully engrossed in the whimsy of it all. Best of luck!




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