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The Santa Clause: Time to Tell

Last December, Eileen Sorg's 7-year-old son, Taylor, asked her if she still believed in Santa Claus. When she said yes, a look of relief crossed his face. "He told me that some older kids he knew didn't believe," says Sorg, of Tigard, OR. "But I don't think he wanted them to be right. And I wasn't ready for him to stop believing."

Most parents know their kids will eventually question myths such as Santa Claus. But when it happens, it can be hard to handle. "Many see it as the first sign that the magical part of childhood is slipping away," says Cindy Dell Clark, Ph.D., author of Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith, which explains why Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy are important to kids.

Although the age at which children stop believing in such make-believe characters varies, many begin to express doubts by 5 or 6  -- when their reasoning skills become sharper and schoolmates start to share knowledge. What's a parent to do when the questions start?

Don't Panic

Just because your child comes to you with inquiries doesn't mean the jig is up. A question like, "How does Santa fit down the chimney?" may not be a challenge to the existence of Saint Nick  -- the asker may just want to know how a rotund man can squeeze through such a narrow space. Ask your child his opinion, says Clark. He's likely to come up with his own answer or reveal his thinking so that you can craft an appropriate response. Short, simple replies are best. Sorg found this strategy worked when Taylor and her other son, Jason, 5, asked for a detailed description of the Tooth Fairy. "I said I didn't know what she looked like because I had never seen her," says Sorg. "That seemed reasonable to them."

Forget About Logic

Most kids don't wake up one day and suddenly reject the existence of Santa  -- even if a friend or sibling says he isn't real. Instead, their beliefs tend to fade gradually or follow a seemingly senseless pattern. For instance, a child might no longer believe in the Easter Bunny, but still cling to the Tooth Fairy. Parental influence and popular culture can also make the fantastic seem real. Let your child believe whatever he wants to, says Clark, whether he waffles about a myth or gives up on one for good: "Kids need to sort out information in their own way and time."

Trust In Forgiveness

Eventually, of course, there will come a day when only the truth will do. If you're lucky, your child will ask for it with a specific, all-or-nothing question ("Mom, are you and Dad the ones who hide Easter eggs in the house?") or evidence ("I saw you stuffing my stocking"). Fortunately, kids don't usually get upset with their parents once they find out that a holiday hero was only make-believe. "Most grade-schoolers are aware of the difference between pretending and lying," says Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. "They're not going to view you as a liar, even if they learn you've been telling tales."

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