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Parents Can Help Kids Cope With Claus

December 21, 1987

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Like many families, Andy and Sandy Gans take their three children to a department store before Christmas every year so each child can tell Santa Claus what they would like most for the holiday.

″They get a lot out of it,″ Gans said. ″It makes it fun.″

But what happens when children stop believing that Santa brings the presents?

″Once they start to question, you know they’re getting ready to want to hear the real answer,″ said psychologist Nancy Curry, a child development specialist at the University of Pittsburgh.

″When the child starts to ask the practical questions, then throw it back to them and say, ’Well, what do you think?‴ she suggested.

Ms. Curry said talking to children about whether Santa Claus exists is a little like talking to them about sex.

″Usually the children will ask questions and not need great, long, full explanations,″ she said. ″Usually it’s good for adults to listen to children and get what their ideas are.″

A study by two New York psychologists of more than 500 children recently found that on average children believe in Santa Claus until they are about 7 1/2 years old, often carefully weighing the evidence before coming to a conclusion.

Most children believe in Santa Claus because books, advertising, the entire culture tells them he is real, said Cynthia Scheibe of New York’s Ithaca College, co-author of the study with John Condry of Cornell University.

″The evidence clearly supports that Santa Claus is real, given what (children) know, given the fact that most adults say Santa Claus is real, that he brings you presents and you can see him,″ she said.

″For adults, it’s an issue that Santa couldn’t get to all the houses in one night, but magic is a pretty good answer for kids,″ she said.

For the same reason, many children believe in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, Ms. Curry said.

Ms. Scheibe said it’s best for an adult to confirm the truth only if a child has strong doubts after wrestling with the question of Santa Claus’ existence.

″If kids come to the conclusion on their own, they feel a sense of accomplishment,″ she said. ″It’s sort of a rite of passage.″

For many, Santa Claus is the personification of the Christmas spirit.

″He has a very positive, nurturing, omnipotent, giving role that would sort of satisfy kids’ needs of being cared about,″ said Dwayne Buhrmester, developmental psychologist at the University of Southern California.

Ms. Curry said it’s fine to put out cookies and milk for Santa, help kids mail wish lists to the North Pole, and clean out the chimney on Christmas Eve, but she cautioned against using Ol’ Saint Nick as a means of discipline.

″The ‘You better watch out,’ that kind of stuff, that can be kind of manipulative,″ she said. ″I think you ought to discipline your children by your own standards.″

Dave LeVasseur took his two children to a downtown Pittsburgh department store Santa and said Santa Claus is an important part of his family’s Christmas.

″Watch the little kids’ eyes when they believe something like that,″ he said.

″Santa flies with his reindeer,″ said his 5-year-old daughter, Kelly. ″One time in Minnesota I saw Rudolph’s nose in the sky.″

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