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When classmates let the secret out of the sleigh bag

By Sarah LeTrent, CNN
updated 8:07 AM EST, Fri December 9, 2011
Other kids can spoil the whimsy of Santa Claus for your child.
Other kids can spoil the whimsy of Santa Claus for your child.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • What should a parent do when children corner them, asking about Santa?
  • Children younger than 7 are likely to believe what their parents tell them
  • One answer: A lot of people believe different things about Santa

(CNN) -- When out on the playground, there arose such a clatter -- because little Tommy told all his classmates there was no such thing as Santa Claus.

It's an uncomfortable scenario both the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny know all too well, and has the potential to leave parents caught like reindeer in headlights.

It typically involves distraught kids cornering their parents after school with widened eyes, blurting out: "Tommy told me there isn't a Santa Claus!" (or Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle or Babbo Natale, respectively).

Heather Barranco knows the awkward affair all too well; her own child recently told a number of the kids in kindergarten that Santa didn't exist. For spiritual reasons, Barranco's family forgoes the Santa tradition.

"One parent, whom I was friendly with, told me that her daughter was not allowed to play with my daughter anymore," says Barranco. "She questioned my parenting skills and said in a very angry voice, 'I do not know what you are teaching your children in your house. But, we believe in Santa and fairies. Your daughter took away something very special from my family.'"

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Barranco, a Catholic school teacher, has since advised her children not to "out" the jolly bearded man; to let others believe if they're so inclined.

"Note that the kid is not trying to be mean, but just ahead of the others in development of this concept," says Tina Feigal, parenting coach, former school psychologist and author of "The Pocket Coach for Parents."

"Kids talk about what's going on inside, which is natural for them," Feigal said. "No blame is needed."

When the situation arises, it is up to each individual parent to decide the best way to answer the question, says Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent."

While the ages of belief vary greatly from individual to individual, Walfish says children under the age of 7 years old -- as evidenced in Barranco's kindergarten class -- are likely to believe what their parents tell them.

Between second and fourth grade is the peak of what Walfish refers to as the latency phase of child development, and is also the period during which parents can expect the question. (Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who wrote the famous letter to the editor of New York's Sun in 1891, was right on schedule.)

"The goal of adolescence is to resolve one's separation from parents and emerge embracing his/her own ideas, opinions, and beliefs," says Walfish.

During this phase, parents can expect to see a spike in doubt: whether it's the child insisting to go to the post office to hand-deliver his or her letter to the North Pole; staying up late to guard the fireplace; comparing handwritten gift tags with Dad's chicken scratches to even questioning the logistics of the sleigh travel.

For the last, former math teacher Benjamin John Coleman urged his students to think about the four dimensions of length, area, volume and time.

"We're able to easily manipulate length, area and volume. For length, think about cutting a piece of string; for area, think about cutting out a square from a piece of paper; and for volume, think about filling a water balloon. The problem is we humans can't manipulate time like we can length, area and volume."

"But what if Santa Claus could?" he asks. "He could make Christmas Eve 100, 1,000, or even 1,000,000 hours long -- just like we can cut a piece of string to any length. He'd have plenty of time to deliver all those presents."

Wary children can follow Santa's journey around the world by satellite on Christmas Eve, thanks to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which started its holiday tradition in 1955.

NORAD, like Coleman, also suggests that "the only logical conclusion is that Santa somehow functions within his own time-space continuum."

Tracking or not, ultimately any curiosity about the folklore is an opportunity to teach children about the importance of finding their own voice and truths in the world, says Paul Hokemeyer, a marriage and family therapist.

"Explain to them that the world is a diverse and large place where people hold different views on the same topic," he says. "And further explain that what's important is to believe in what feels true at a particular moment in time and to hold on to it for however long as it feels honest and true."

Feigal also advocates letting your child come to his or her own conclusions, and that questioning things is a healthy sign of maturity.

"Adults need to take more of a 'curious stance' than a 'fixing stance' with this issue. Ask questions, and don't be so quick to 'make it all better' for your child," recommends Feigal.

"Superman is a symbol of generosity, too, and we all 'believe in' him. If Santa is in your heart, he's real."

And as confusing as it may be for the child who still believes, it's also confusing for the kids who know the truth, such as older siblings, says Walfish.

Being told not to tell a younger brother or sister can be a burden for the elder secret-holder, so Walfish recommends advising them to reflect instead. "Say, 'As you get older your ideas and belief may change. When we're younger, it's fun to believe in Santa Claus."

Most importantly for parents, 'tis not the season to feel guilty about the Santa tradition -- should they choose to participate -- when the folklore is let out of the sleigh bag.

"Moms and dads need to relax and cut themselves some slack," she says. "You are not changing the truth for personal gain or deceit. Santa is part of our folklore. The celebration of Christmas has included Santa Claus for almost all young children. You are passing down the folklore, keeping up the tradition and allowing your child to fully enjoy the magic."

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