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The great Santa debate: What to tell the kids

Dec. 10, 2012 at 1:43 PM ET

Editor’s Note: Here at TODAY Moms, we are firmlypro-Santa. He lives in the North Pole, he and his reindeer fly around the world delivering presents to good little boys and girls, and he's totally awesome. (And we're not just saying this to kiss up because it's Dec. 10!) However, be warned that this story discusses some adult subject matter, such as various theories as to who really brings those presents on Christmas.

Parents disagree on what to tell children about good old St. Nick.
Mike Kemp / Getty Images stock
Charming childhood memory... or traumatic betrayal? Parents disagree on what to tell children about good old St. Nick.

With Christmas right around the corner, some parents fully embrace the magic of Santa Claus – and others give Santa the stiff-arm. In fact, some moms and dads believe teaching kids about jolly old Saint Nick is an outright “lie,” one that could lead to feelings of confusion and betrayal down the road.

Brad Pitt, father of six, recently weighed in on the subject, revealing that he refuses to “lie” to his kids about St. Nick, and that he’s not “real big on the whole Santa thing.” Pitt says he remembers when he discovered the real deal about the North Pole, and it was a “huge act of betrayal” for him as a little boy. “ He told E! News, “when I found out the truth, I was like ‘Why? Why? Why would you lie to me?”

So the famous dad leaves it up to his kids to figure it out: “What I tell them is some people believe in Santa, and some people believe it’s parents, and you get to believe whatever you want.”

Lisa Moran, an editor and writer at iVillage, thinks that Brad’s got a “smart take” on saying “no thank you” to the whole Santa charade. For one thing, Moran says she’s tired of the web of lies she has to spin for her sons to keep it all going every year.

Psychotherapist and mother Andrea Nair told TODAY Moms she's heard too many clients in her line of work talk about how “duped” they felt by their parents and how “shocked” they were when they found out there was no Kris Kringle. So she strives to be “completely truthful” with her own kids, and says she always describes Santa as a “story book character.”

Many others say the Santa-deniers are missing the point. Their take on the Christmas legend has less to do with whether a jolly, bearded man dressed in red slides down everybody’s chimney at night, and more to do with the spirit of giving — regardless of which specific holiday you happen to celebrate with your family this month.

“There’s a huge difference between telling your child an untruth and allowing them to believe in the magic and mystery of the holidays,” says Karri-Leigh Mastrangelo, a television producer and blogger with two daughters, Emilia, 5, and Isla, 2-and-a-half.

Devon Corneal, a New Jersey lawyer and parenting blogger, doesn’t consider Santa a lie either. “When my 4-and-a-half year old son, Cooper, asks, how does Santa get around the world? I answer: because it’s magic,” she says.

Corneal says there’s so little magic in our everyday lives, and soon enough our little ones will be all grown-up, paying their bills, gassing up their cars, and going to work every day. So for now, Santa is a very real and special part of the holidays in her home. Corneal’s husband puts on his Santa suit every Christmas so their son can have a “real Santa sighting.” One year, she sat on the steps with their son in his PJs, peeking through the banister, as “Santa” put toys under their tree.

For Jennifer and Ben Whitfield, who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah with their 3-year-old, Andrew, the story of Santa is as much a part of their holiday folklore as the miracle of the menorah, and how a small amount of oil that was only enough for a day somehow burned for eight nights.

“In our house, Santa is no more a ‘lie’ than the magic of those flames lasting for so long,” Whitfield explains.

Teaching your kids the Santa story won't scar them for life, assures Dr. Janet Serwint, professor of pediatrics and public health, and pediatric program director, at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

“There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to telling your kid about Santa,” Serwint says. “Santa isn’t the kind of ‘lie’ or untruth that you have to be more worried about as a parent.”

She says parents should never intentionally deceive a kid about a serious matter (like a family member being ill, or telling them that an adult has stopped smoking when they really haven’t), which can lead to deeper issues of distrust.

But when it comes to Christmas, she agrees, Santa – and all his magic – can be a fun part of any family’s holiday tradition.

All of the Santa hoopla isn’t really about a Christian holiday or a religious symbol anyway, says Rebecca Munsterer, author of “Mrs. Claus and The School of Christmas Spirit.”

After all, she says, look at all the holiday coat, food, and toy drives this time of year, and the picture of the New York police officer giving a barefoot man shoes that recently went viral. Regardless of the aftermath, she doesn’t think the photo would have captured so many hearts and become such an internet sensation, during the early fall or the dead of winter.

“Whatever your religion, that officer, in that moment, could have been Santa,” Munsterer says. “That’s what he’s about, the spirit of giving and good will, that you try to pass on to kids through all of this.”

Joy Huang, a television executive and co-founder of the organization Secret Sandy, agrees that teaching kids to believe in a little Santa magic is OK, even if they don't celebrate Christmas -- since the real message is about generosity and hope.

The Secret Sandy site, launched a month ago, lets kids who still don’t have power or shelter “write to Santa,” explaining a little about their family’s situation and linking to Amazon items that would be helpful for them to receive this holiday season. (There are paper copies in affected areas so that children without internet access can still participate.) Volunteers then connect with a child who needs assistance, and as Huang describes, “no matter where you are in the country, you can help spread joy and cheer to families in need.”

Now that's what we call the Santa spirit. Sorry Brad. Turns out, you may be a bit of a scrooge on this one.

Poll: What do your kids believe about Santa?

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