It is no coincidence that most Santa-believing children lose their faith in the jolly bearded fellow at around age 8 or 9, finds a recent study that explains why this period marks an important shift in human development.
Kids at this time usually improve their conceptual abilities, developing a better understanding of underlying causes behind physical realities and the information that they receive. The period also marks the birth of skepticism, helping to explain why so many of us feel a loss of innocence and unquestioning joy at this time. Often the word "magic" is later used to describe the lost phase.
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Santa is all about magic, requiring incredible faith even to entertain the idea of his existence.
"Santa is purported to engage in activities that violate physical principles known even to infants, at least on an implicit level," wrote researchers Andrew Shtulman and Rachel InKyung Yoo in the study, published in the journal Cognitive Development. They are both in Occidental College's Department of Psychology.
"For instance," they added, "Santa violates our expectations about spatiotemporal continuity by visiting all the world's children in a single night; he violates expectations about containment by entering children's houses through their narrow chimneys; and he violates expectations about support by flying through the air on a wooden sleigh."
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Despite these obvious violations to known cause and effect, young children believe in Santa more strongly than they do in any other fantasy character, such as the Tooth Fairy.
One reason for this, according to the researchers, is that they hear a lot about the rosy-cheeked gift giver. Even children whose parents do not endorse the existence of Santa may still believe in him if they find the story appealing. For example, studies have found that many kids raised in Jewish or fundamentalist Christian households might still enjoy all things Santa, having learned of the story through friends, TV shows and more.
As Shtulman and Yoo explain, "Much of what we know about the world comes from the testimony of others. Few adults have dissected a human body or performed astronomical calculations, yet most still know that the liver is in the abdomen and the Earth orbits the sun."
They added, "One of the prerequisites of learning from testimony is that we must trust what others tell us, but such trust need not be blind."
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To better understand why children stop believing in Santa, the researchers analyzed hundreds of letters that kids aged 4 to 9 wrote to him. The scientists coded the questions as either being factual or conceptual in nature.
Factual questions sought info about the mundane aspects of Santa's existence, like his location or appearance, such as, "Did you get a new reindeer named Olive?" "How tall is the North Pole?"
Conceptual questions, on the other hand, probed the physical constraints that Santa is purported to violate. Only the older children tended to pose such queries, that included, "How do you fit through a chimney?" "How do you know I'm being bad?"
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Interestingly, there was an interim phase where kids just before just the skepticism crept in attempted to answer such questions themselves. They reasoned that chubby Santa could fit through chimneys if he took his coat off, for example. He could also see the world via cameras positioned all over the place. A million elves made it possible for him to make all of the toys. And one kid even reasoned that reindeer could fly because they are all attached to yarn held aloft by the presumably motored sleigh.
The determination that a developmental shift in thinking occurs at about age 8 to 9 negates earlier theories that children stop believing in Santa because the information they hear about him changes.
Try as some of us might, it sounds like belief in Santa is instead as ephemeral as childhood itself. As the authors shared, a friend of theirs "wholeheartedly encouraged her son to believe in Santa."
She likely left out the milk and cookies, hid gifts and did all that she could to keep her son's belief in Santa alive. That all seemed to work until she came upon a piece of wrapping paper with the following note scrawled on the back: "If Santa uses this paper, Mom is Santa!"