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When Do Children Give Up on Santa?

A preview of a new international study explores when kids stop believing and how, after the jig is up, it impacted them psychologically

Waiting on a lie (Image Source / Alamy Stock Photo)
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Back in 2016, Christopher Boyle, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Exeter, co-wrote a short essay questioning the value of lying about Santa Claus. "But adults are not meant to lie! However, you are aware that they have, so as a child you also consider what else have they lied about...If they are capable of lying about something so special and magical, can they be relied upon to continue as the guardians of wisdom and truth?" asked the piece, which ran in Lancet Psychiatry.

Unsurprisingly, after it was published, Boyle started hearing from lots of people who said (spoiler alert) learning that St. Nick was fictional became the root of some very real trust issues.

Now, as Sarah Sloat at Inverse reports, Boyle is back with a new survey that offers some insight into how long children believed in Kris Kringle, how it affected them personally and whether their disillusionment with life began on the lap of a jolly lie dressed in a red fur-trimmed jacket.

Though the Exeter Santa Survey is still ongoing and won't be published until 2019, in the spirit of the season of lies, Boyle released preliminary data from 1,200 respondents from around the world. The survey asks participants to reflect on their childhood memories of Santa, their belief in the whole North Pole Conspiracy and how finding out the truth impacted their lives.

According to the released findings, the average child in England stops believing in Santa just around age 8 while Scottish rugrats hold on until they’re just over 8 and a half. (Boyle doesn't break out the American average, but a small survey conducted 40 years ago found that 75 percent of 8 year olds in the U.S. no longer believed, so take that as you will.) In a data point that should make guardians take note, some 65 percent of respondents said they continued to play along with the Santa shtick for a time, even after they realized it wasn’t true.

When the great reveal happened, 56 of people said it didn’t impact their trust in adults. About 33 percent, however, were upset by the revelation with 15 percent feeling a real sense of betrayal by their parents and 10 percent feeling angry.

As for the parents, more than 70 percent say are happy to go along with the Santa pageantry while the rest say have chosen not to perpetrate the Greatest Lie Ever Told. The survey also found that 31 percent of parents will straight-up lie to their children if they ask if Santa is real, while 40 percent said they acknowledged the truth when asked directly.

In the press release, Boyle explains that children begin to question the tale of the man in the chimney for a variety of reasons. “The main cause is either the accidental or deliberate actions of parents,” he says. Others began to realize the story wasn’t quite adding up as they got older.

One participant learned the truth when they heard their father—who was described in the release as “tipsy”—start dropping presents in the middle of the night. Others found presents or their letters to Santa in their parents’ rooms or noticed some surprising similarities between Santa’s handwriting and their own relations’ penmanship. Others were disillusioned by finding store tags on their presents, or discovering that a visiting Santa was someone they knew dressed up in a suit.

Others, Boyle found, got creative: they set up Santa traps around their house, posted secret letters to the North Pole, and even set about debunking the physics of the overnight gift-a-palooza. Others took to a more philosophical route, questioning why, if Santa was so good, he didn’t just end poverty in the world instead of handing out Barbie Corvettes? A few said their parents were forced to tell them the truth because the idea of Santa coming into their house freaked them out so much they couldn't sleep (which is, probably, the most reasonable response).

So why do so many parents indulge in the Santa Charade? Turns out that many people yearn for the simpler time they believed in Ol’ Rosy Cheeks. While 50 percent of respondents said they were fine with not believing in Santa, 34 percent said they wished they still believed. That’s something Boyle and his co-author mental health researcher Kathy McKay at Australia’s University of New England, posited in their 2016 essay, which was entitled “It’s a Wonderful Lie.”

“The persistence of fandom in stories like Harry Potter, Star Wars and ‘Doctor Who’ well into adulthood demonstrates this desire to briefly re-enter childhood,” McKay said in a release. “Many people may yearn for a time when imagination was accepted and encouraged, which may not be the case in adult life.”

“Might it be the case that the harshness of real life requires the creation of something better, something to believe in, something to hope for in the future or to return to a long-lost childhood a long time ago in a galaxy far far away?” they write in the essay.

In truth, cultures with a gift-giving Santa tradition have gotten off relatively easy. The psychological scars left by a peaceful saint handing out Hatchimals can’t be worse than those inflicted by the terrifying Krampus or following the Catalan tradition of smacking a poor, smiling Christmas log until it poops out presents and a stinky herring and then burning it alive.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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