Santa Claus may be the mainstay of Christmas, but each year he comes under assault from youngsters wanting to know if he really exists.
Tongue-tied parents must decide at what age, if any, to tell their children the truth.Should they spill the beans during dinner? Let it slip when their child is distracted by Saturday-morning cartoons?
None of the above, insist experienced parents and child psychologists, who say that long before parents have to make a decision, their child is likely to approach them with the truth.
Recent studies in Psychological Report and Contemporary Educational Pyschology have shown that while 80 percent of 4-year-olds firmly believe in Santa Claus, 55 percent of 8-year-olds question his existence.
"Usually children will ask for the truth when they're ready to know," said Helen Richards, acting supervisor of psychological services for the Denver Public Schools. "Children have usually heard that information long before they are ready to process it. When they're still in the magical stage - say, under age 7 - they will discount the news that Santa Claus isn't real."
Therein lies the irony, said Richards: No matter what you tell your child, he or she will ultimately decide the truth.
"The spirit of giving is something parents generally share with children, and when the child finds that Santa isn't a literal person, they are usually at the age where they can deal with it," she said. "The rationale behind this myth is to teach children a greater truth, not to deceive them."
Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist who has been studying the traditional beliefs of children, agrees.
"What you find is that by second or third grade, kids who still believe in Santa Claus are being teased by kids at school who don't believe anymore," he explained. "Isn't it better for parents to sit down with their children and explain that although Santa Claus is no longer alive, the spirit of Christmas is?"
Zinda Welch, a mother of five ranging from newborn to 14, sees her job as putting what her children hear elsewhere into context.
"I have never had to tell my kids that there isn't a Santa Claus," she said. "They get more observant as they get older, and usually they hear about it from a friend at school. At some point they'll come and tell me that there's no Santa. I'll sit down and talk with them; I'll ask how they found out and how they feel about it. Usually they aren't too disappointed.
"I tell them the joy is in keeping a secret and letting Christmas remain a surprise for the younger kids," she added. "They're allowed to conspire with the adults and they love it. They try to help (keep the myth) alive."
Actually, those who suffer most from debunking the Santa Claus myth are often the parents, not children, Richards said.
"It's a difficult time for parents because often they see it as marking the end of childhood."