It’s that time of the year again when parents deliberate over whether to lie – or continue the lie – to their kids about Santa Claus.
Many parents don’t feel comfortable “lying” to their child just to prop up a popular myth.
But does lying about whether Santa exists really do children any psychological harm? And if you do choose to lie to them, when’s the best age to break the news?
How lying works
Lying is a surprisingly sophisticated skill – it’s all about a person’s intentions.
For example, I might say, Sally is bringing Turkey on Christmas day, because I honestly believed that was the arrangement. But actually I got it wrong, Sally is bringing ham.
Unintentional misreporting of information we genuinely believe to be true is not the same as deliberately trying to implant a false belief.
The ability to lie and deliberately have someone believe something we know not to be true requires a fairly well-developed theory of mind (ToM) with two specific components:
1) Understanding perception
You appreciate that others can entertain a different understanding to yours. It might surprise you that a number of adults still struggle with this concept because they have difficulty seeing things from another point of view.
Stepping outside your own perspective to appreciate another’s involves an extraordinary amount of brain function; error rates in doing so, even among adults, remain high.
2) Knowing you can convince someone of a false belief
If you ask me my name and I tell you it’s Sandra, do you demand to see a birth certificate to verify that information? Of course not, chances are you will take whatever I tell you at face value. Only if inconsistencies or suspicions arise are you likely to invest any time or effort to determine that my real name is Rachael.
The purpose of lying can be fairly obvious (I want you to hold a false belief about my name to hide my identity); alternatively the reasons why some people lie can be extremely perplexing.
Pathological liars, for example, seem to have no clear motive whatsoever. It seems they simply enjoy the sport of implanting false beliefs – an act that has been coined “duping delight”.
When do children understand the concept of lying?
Theory of mind is an incredibly important skill to cultivate – it’s the basis of what you might think of as social intelligence.
Around the age of four years children will experience an epiphany in realising that not everyone thinks exactly the same way as they do.
Unlike a number of other brain functions, ToM has a tendency to improve with age (and experience).
Being able to put yourself in another’s shoes is a vital skill for day-to-day relationships (just because I like Turkey at Christmas lunch, that doesn’t automatically mean my family do, so I should also offer other options).
In a bigger picture application, it allows us to negotiate using diplomacy, politics and strategy to achieve compromise rather than slugging out our differences on a battlefield.
ToM helps us to appreciate if we are being deceived, manipulated and drives us to think critically – for example, demand evidence to test a belief that is being put to us.
It also helps us to imagine, fantasise, daydream and create. Little kids holding imaginary tea parties, despite the obvious omission of hot tea, causes few parents concerns.
You can think about Santa in the same vein.
Stories about trolls, monsters, fairies and Santa fertilise a developing imagination and may even encourage lateral thinking.
Most kids will figure out that Santa is not real in early primary school, either from their friends, or simply because around the same time their brain naturally moves from magical to logical thinking.
This doesn’t seem to bother them for the most part, possibly because they are concurrently developing an understanding of others’ intentions (Mum told me about Santa to make me happy).
No matter how old and cynical we become, most of us still indulge the odd fantasy: reading fictional books, watching zombie films or daydreaming.
There’s nothing wrong with bringing a little joyful magic into your child’s life. However if your child starts to cultivate suspicions that Santa isn’t real, and asks you directly for the truth of the matter, it is probably time to fess up.
Continuing the Santa mirage after age 12 years isn’t helpful, as most kids will have the brain power by then to realise you are just being silly. However up to eight years or so, not only are stories about Santa and others age-appropriate, they may even facilitate imagination, hope and optimism: some approaches to life we would all do well to cultivate further.
Rachael Sharman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.