Do you remember when you stopped believing in the Easter Bunny? Santa Claus?
you grew up speaking English (or any of the Germanic languages), these
fantasy characters probably played a role in your early childhood.
A positive role? I’ll bet most of us would say yes.
But some parents worry about the implications of misleading children. These are lies, after all.
Perhaps, when kids discover the truth, they will feel their parents have betrayed them.
In addition, some parents are concerned about critical thinking.
In a single night, a rabbit
delivers millions of gifts to children around the world. Asking kids to
accept this might seem like an invitation to be credulous and
So it’s interesting to consider the research. Overall, it's pretty reassuring.
As you might expect, kids believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny as a function of age.
Kids are also more likely to believe if their parents encourage them to do so (Prentice et al 1978; Anderson and Prentice 1994).
But it’s not clear that these beliefs are a sign of greater gullibility or even a greater interest in fantasy.
one study, researchers found that a belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny
was unrelated to other measures of a child's interest in fantasy
(Prentice et al 1978).
And a recent series of experiments
conducted at Harvard found that kids make important distinctions between
beliefs in folkloric, fantasy characters and beliefs in other unseen,
but scientifically-established, entities (Harris et al 2006).
Kids who professed to believe in Santa or the Bunny were nonetheless less certain about it than they were about the existence of oxygen or germs.
set of experiments revealed that 4-year olds don't invoke magical
explanations for things that happen in the real world--not unless those
things otherwise seem impossible (Rosengren and Hickling 1994).
reminded of anthropologist Dan Sperber, who notes that people are often
asked to believe things that are irrational or absurd. For instance,
the Bororo of South America assert that they are red macaws.
people really believe such things? Not exactly. The very absurdity or
implausibility of the ideas forces people to think of them in a special
These are mysteries. They can’t be strictly true. So people don’t take them as literal truths (Sperber 1974).
What happens when kids finally penetrate the veil and reject our fantasies?
We might feel a little awkward or wistful. But the kids don’t appear to be heartbroken.
When researchers questioned children who had stopped believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny--a milestone they reached around the age of 7--kids reported feeling pleased.
They had figured it out. They were enlightened now.
It was the parents--not the kids--who reported feeling a bit sad (Anderson and Prentice 1994; Cyr 2002).
And the lying?
Maybe some kids are a bit disturbed about it.
John Condry's dissertation research included interviews with hundreds
of kids, and none of them reported feeling angry at their parents when
they found out the truth about Easter and Christmas (Condry 1987).
that's because kids realize the deception is a friendly one. Studies
suggest that children as young as 3 understand the kindly “white lie."
instance, preschoolers have been presented with badly-drawn sketches
and asked to rate them. When the artist was present, the kids said more
In other studies, kids have pretended to be
happy with gifts they didn’t really like. They’ve told white lies to
spare the feelings of people wearing goofy make-up (see Xu et al 2010
for review of all these studies).
So I'm betting that kids can forgive a benign, culturally-sanctioned deception like the Easter Bunny.
And kids obviously enjoy the ideas, even if they no longer believe in them (Cyr 2002).
For more evidence-based information about children's beliefs about magic and the supernatural, see these blog posts: