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3 Ways to Prove There’s a Santa Claus

shutterstock_259280957-compressor‘Tis the season! Now that the most wonderful time of the year is here, it is time again (for at least inquisitive researchers) to ask the age old question: why is it that children throughout America wholeheartedly believe there’s a man who lives forever, resides at the North Pole, knows what every child in the world desires, drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and enters houses through a chimney –something most homes even outside of Hawaii don’t even have?

We know exactly why. And while we also know that this was not anywhere close to being on the list of things you are dealing with right now, we are equally confident that now that we’ve brought it up you’ll want to know.

Given the many absurdities and contradictions about Santa, it’s surprising that even young children would believe it. Yet research shows that 83 percent of five-year-olds believe Santa is real. But why?

Most would just explain it away with the fact that children are completely credible (or if you are a Scrooge, “gullible”) beings, thereby believing anything a parent would tell them. Yet researchers –the party-poopers that we can be sometimes- have discovered that children are rational, thoughtful consumers of information who employ the same tools that adults do to determine what to believe.

So what are those tools, and why do they “go wrong” when employed by children? There are three main filters most people use to determine truth from fiction: Context, Comparison, and Calculation. They are all closely related, but vary in degree and nuance.

Context is simply where the information comes from. An easy example is the weight you put on reading something from National Geographic, versus something you read in National Enquirer. Comparison can also be called Confirmation, meaning the information being confirmed by people you know whom you trust –i.e., your feet on the ground dentist who has spent decades in stringent scientific disciplines, or your loveable, oddball neighbor –who reads National Enquirer. Calculation is your ability to take the all the sources and corroboration and come to your conclusion of what to believe.

Research shows that children as young as four years old use these tools. In other words, children use expertise, just as adults do. So why then do they come to believe such a ridiculous story? The answer is simple and obvious: because adults go to such incredible lengths to perpetuate and support he myth.

A recent study showed that 84 percent of parents reported taking their children to visit MORE THAN TWO Santa impersonators during the Christmas season.

The United States Postal Service now promotes a “Letters from Santa” program in which it provides personal replies to children’s letters to Santa, and United Airlines just this year launched a special “Flight to the North Pole” program in Hawaii, a years-long successful program they run in select mainland airports where they load up a plane and taxi across an airport to a destination where Santa just happens to intercede before the tray tables and seatbacks go up.

Why do we feel compelled to go to such great lengths? The answer is simply this: Children are not unthinkingly credulous and do not believe everything we tell them. So, we adults must overwhelm them with evidence – the live Santas at the mall, the half-eaten cookies for Santa (and carrot for Rudolph) on Christmas morning. Given this effort, it essentially would be irrational for children NOT to believe. Their belief, in fact, is proof they are exercising their scientific thinking skills.

First, they evaluate sources of information, and they happen to put a lot of credence in what an adult tells them (enjoy this while you can). They look around and see all the evidence that adults put out there, and faced with the same preponderance of proof, their friends whom they trust confirm this information. The use all this to calculate their conclusion.

So is this damaging? Some parents wonder whether they are harming their children by engaging in the Santa myth, thinking that it could lead to permanent distrust of parents and other authorities, (and perhaps even the National Geographic, as per today’s climate).

Time for us researchers to finally set out the punch and party! There is no evidence that belief, and eventual disbelief, affects parental trust in any significant way (at least until the approximate age of 15). In fact, engaging with the Santa story may give children a chance to exercise and sharpen the above-mentioned cognitive tools.

So, if you think it would be fun for you and your family to invite Santa Claus into your home at Christmas time, go for it! Your children will be fine.

Just don’t invite the Easter Bunny. She and Santa have issues.

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