It’s the time of year when children and those young at heart are warned they had better watch out, better not cry and definitely not pout because Santa Claus is coming to town.
And Lynda Breen, a psychiatrist at Britain’s Alder Hey Hospital, thinks that children’s belief and parents’ collusion in maintaining the myth of a kindly, chubby chap in a red suit is, on balance, a good thing.
“The tale of Santa Claus is a powerful tool that may serve to nuture social and cognitive development, particularly in a technological society where children mature earlier,” Breen writes in the Psychiatric Bulletin. In other words, kids learn to “be good for goodness sake” because they know Santa Claus makes a list to find out, then checks it twice, to find out just “who’s naughty or nice.”
Breen argues that encouraging children to believe in a “benevolent Santa” may help foster “traits of kindness and cooperation”. The fantasy of a nurturing and generous man can also help some children feel loved and comforted.
“Many letters to Santa include a wish for someone else, including the poor or the sick. Children also ask for the relief of painful personal feelings, such as grief, loneliness or rejection,” she writes.
Santa Claus also helps children in their cognitive development, Breen suggests. Symbolic play is part of the young children’s development, she says, helping children to develop their creativity as well as learning the skills for solving problems in later life.
Even the simple act of writing to Santa is a learning opportunity, encouraging children to frame their thoughts. “Some schools incorporate ‘writing to Santa’ as a pertinent class exercise. Stimulating these fantasies helps focus attention and concentration and may enhance ideals and creative thinking,” Breen writes.
Eventually children realise that Santa isn’t real, usually around the age of seven. “Disenchantment with Santa is considered a developmental milestone and the adoption of an adult-defined reality.” Breen notes that most children cope with learning that Santa isn’t real, but parents are saddened by their child’s discovery of the truth.
The article notes that some parents believe that children should not be encouraged to believe in the Santa myth, arguing that it is lying and that it promotes materialism to children. But Breen thinks that we should cherish the myth of Santa: “He is a symbol of hope and belief in him teaches children the values of role models, family bonding and sharing as well as promoting cognitive benefits.”
In a complementary article to Breen’s, London psychiatrist Mark Salter agrees that that Santa (“a rubicund, septuagenarian airborne logistics expert living in the frozen Artic”) should continue to have a place in our society. “Breen is telling us a home truth: out imagination is like any other part of our body — we use it or lose it,” writes Salter in the Psychiatric Bulletin.
And so this year, when you leave out a tipple for Santa and some carrots for the reindeer, you can feel confident that you are indulging in a time-honoured and useful tradition.
“If families allow Santa and all his finery to fade into obscurity,” writes Breen, “we may deny future generations of a fantasy that may be valuable to their cognitive and social development.”