What’s your guess about the percentage of kids who believe Santa is real? A lot of parents, myself included, would say close to 100%. But University of Texas psychologist Jacqueline Woolley noticed a drop-off in belief in Santa after the tender age of five. That’s when kids’ belief in the Tooth Fairy crested as well. Another study confirms Woolley’s observation, showing that 85 percent of 4-year-olds believe in Santa. As kids grow up, they naturally learn the harsh reality, especially if they have naughty older siblings. Only 65 percent of 6-year-olds believe in Saint Nick. By age nine, less than 25 percent do.
But interestingly, it’s we parents who are attached to keeping the Santa myth alive for as long as possible. Some adults will even go to extreme lengths to protect the Santa myth. This year, a California mom was threatened with a lawsuit because her son had “emotionally damaged” eight friends at school when he revealed that Santa wasn’t real. Even adults who don’t threaten lawsuits over Santa remember, nostalgically, believing in Santa for far longer than the numbers show. An AP poll from 2011 found 84 percent of people had once believed in Santa, but the mean self-reported age at which they stopped was almost nine — not age five or six, as the data shows. Similarly, another AP poll found that the age at which kids stopped believing in Santa Claus varied by religion, but at least one third to half of people across religions said they stopped believing between the ages of 9 and 12.
The bottom line is that we parents want our kids to believe in Santa, and want to remember that we ourselves believed in Santa, far longer than kids today actually do. Why? It could be we’re romancing our own childhoods, or indulging our desire to keep our children innocent and trusting for as long as possible, or just that we really like playing Santa.
There comes a time when all of us parents wonder when we should – and exactly how to — break the bad news to kids. My advice: don’t. Reality has a way of squashing our kids’ dreams, whether it’s about Santa or the fact that they may not be an Olympic gymnast, win every spelling be, or become the number one NFL draft pick at 17. I let my kids believe in Santa because it’s not our job as parents to crush our children’s hopes. It’s to encourage them to believe, occasionally at least, in wonder and magic. At least for one day a year. Merry Christmas, everyone.