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Santa for Skeptics?

Some parents with a strong streak of skepticism and a chronic case of critical thinking can feel a little hypocritical this time of year.

When we skeptical parents tell our kids that there is a magic man who brings gifts to all the children on the planet in one night, it is hard not to feel a little weird about it. After all, you’re raising a little critical thinker. Why would you want to teach them to believe in fairytales? Much less one as bizzare as Santa?

And so some decide that they will come clean about Santa in the belief that doing so will make their kids a better critical thinker.

Not so fast.

Kids are magical thinkers by nature. When they are very little, 2 to 7, it is developmentally appropriate for them to believe in magic. For example, I once worked with a five year old who was firmly convinced that he got a new puppy because he had drawn a picture of a dog. The picture, he told me, came to life. Another child I worked with believed her mother became pregnant because she magically wished for a sister (spoiler alert: it was a brother). This is so normal that child psychologists like me look for “magical thinking” (a technical term in child development) when we do assessments.

But sometime between 7 and 13, they go through the kid version of the European Enlightenment. They question everything, demand evidence, and learn the rudiments of reason through trial and error. With one foot in the world of magic and one in real world, they begin to develop their skepticism.

This transition isn’t always easy. And I bet you know at least one person for whom it wasn’t fully successful. But what a lot of parents don’t get is that kids actually need fairytales with testable claims in order to test them and outgrow them. They cut their critical thinking teeth on the tooth fairy and others like her.

As a parent once shared with me when her daughter finally quizzed her down like Socrates and discovered the truth, “The last present Santa leaves under the tree is the gift of critical thinking.”

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